State Board of Education, Public Roundtable before the Truancy and Student Engagement Committee

Testimony of Alex Peerman, Policy & Advocacy Associate

           Good evening, members of the DC State Board of Education.  My name is Alex Peerman and I am the Policy and Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth, which represents youth in the juvenile delinquency system and advocates for systemic juvenile justice reform.  First, I want to applaud the Truancy and Student Engagement Committee for convening this roundtable.  In recent years, DC policymakers have been very focused on the issue of truancy, as measured by unexcused absences.  However, this focus has been accompanied by a relative lack of attention to the broader issue of school disengagement.  My testimony today will argue that the District needs to not only combat truancy, but also to proactively enhance student engagement and decrease its use of out-of-school suspension.

Much of the District’s Truancy Is A Symptom of Broader School Disengagement

            When we hear about truancy, the conversation often starts with a system-wide statistic, such as that last school year 32% of DCPS students missed more than 10 days of class.[1]  However, to more fully understand the situation, we need to look at the data by grade and by how many days students missed.  As you can see in Figure 1, just about 10% of DCPS elementary school students were chronically truant last year.  And during the middle school grades, about 30% of students were chronically truant.  These rates are worrisome, but the high school grades showed dramatically higher rates of unexcused absence, with 84% of high school seniors meeting the definition of chronic truancy.  Comparing these numbers, chronic truancy affects about one in ten elementary school students, three in ten middle school students, and seven in ten high school students.  Of all students who were chronically truant last school year, 56% were in high school, though high school students make up only 24% of the overall student population.

            It is also important to examine the number of days that these high school students are missing.  As Figure 1 shows, the percentage of high school students who missed between 11 and 20 school days is quite similar to that for middle school students.  The dramatic increase is in students who missed more than 21 days.  These statistics, combined with conversations with our school-enrolled clients, lead us to conclude that many of the students currently being counted as truant are deeply disengaged from school.  They are often very far behind in their classes and see little chance that they will become successful at school.  When students do not see how school meets their needs, they often become disconnected and stop attending consistently.

            These observations support our sense that the most effective truancy interventions are comprehensive early efforts to enhance school engagement. 

Figure 1: Chronic Truancy Increases in Middle School and Explodes In High School[2]


 The District’s Current Anti-Truancy Efforts Focus on Enforcement Rather Than Increasing Engagement

            However, the District’s current efforts to increase school attendance have prioritized enforcement – the referral and court petition of students with poor school attendance – rather than bolstering school-based efforts to reengage students.[3]  The South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012 and the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013 made significant changes to the District’s school attendance procedures that have resulted in an increased number of students being referred to enforcement agencies for poor school attendance.  After five unexcused absences, a student is supposed to have a meeting with a school-based student support team (SST),[4] the function of which is to create an action plan to “enhance the student's success with services, incentives, intervention strategies, and consequences for dealing with absenteeism.”[5]  After 10 unexcused absences, students age 13 and under are referred to the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) and students age 14 and over referred to Court Social Services (CSS) and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) for a potential truancy prosecution.[6]

            In theory, the SST requirement ensures that students receive robust school-based services before parents or children are referred to enforcement agencies.  In practice, however, schools have prioritized compliance with the enforcement referrals, even for students that never received an SST meeting.  Last school year, for example, Anacostia High School referred 192 students to CSS and OAG for chronic truancy, but held only 23 SST meetings; HD Woodson High School made 182 referrals with only 2 SST meetings; and Springarn High School made 117 referrals despite holding 0 SST meetings.[7]

DCPS data from last school year showed that 8105 students were legally required to have an SST meeting.  Only 36% of these students actually received an SST meeting and only 14% had meetings that identified barriers to attendance – the meetings’ stated purpose.[8]  Also, it should be noted that even among this 14%, the data do not tell us whether the attendance action plan was successfully implemented; they too may not have received any meaningful intervention.  As DCPS wrote in its performance oversight responses, “[T]his burden is large and we are struggling to comply. . . . As we struggle with our capacity to keep pace with the volume of student absences, it is difficult to determine whether the attendance-related SSTs are having the intended impact of reducing truancy.”[9]

            Based on these data, we are concerned that schools are being pressured to comply with legal rules that require them to refer their students and parents to punitive interventions, but are not being given the resources to provide services and programs on the front end that would increase attendance and enhance overall student engagement.

Excused Absences, Especially Due to Suspension, Should Receive More Attention From Policymakers

            Another limitation of the current truancy-focused efforts is that they do not account for the effects of excused absences.  Based on in-seat attendance data from DCPS and the charter sector, we estimate that students missed 1.2 million school days last year, for both excused and unexcused reasons.[10]  By a conservative estimate, about 450,000, or about a third, of these days were for excused absences.[11]  Given that all absences, whether excused or unexcused, deprive a student class time, future efforts should strive to increase overall school attendance, not just decrease truancy.

            There is one sort of absence in particular that some may be surprised is classified as excused – absence due to suspension.  Decreasing this particular category of absence should be a priority given what we know about the harmful effects on students who are suspended from school.  Quantitative research has demonstrated that, even when controlling for variables like family income, teacher training, and student test scores, being excluded from school is associated with negative outcomes.  All else equal, a single suspension makes a student twice as likely to repeat a grade and three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile delinquency system.[12]  This research validates common sense; a child who is out of school is less likely to be engaged in learning and more likely to get into trouble.

            Some groups of students are much more likely to be exposed to these harmful effects than others.  A recent report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) found that African American students were suspended at about 16 times the rate of white students and that students receiving special education services were suspended at twice the rate of those who were not receiving such services.[13]  The report further found that suspensions for federally-required reporting categories were disproportionately likely to be issued to students who were enrolled in free and reduced price lunch, homeless, or under the care of the Child and Family Services Agency.[14]  These data show that the children who are most disadvantaged and would most benefit from being in a nurturing school environment are also those most likely to be pushed out of it for disciplinary reasons.

Figure 2: DCPS Schools’ SY12-13

African American Enrollment vs. Suspension Rate[15]


            Beyond the fact that disciplinary absences are counted as excused, there is another connection between suspensions and truancy.  The data from our research[16] and from the recent OSSE report[17] both suggest that a student’s likelihood of being suspended is highest in middle school.  This means that at the same time the District is desperately trying to convince struggling students and their families of the importance of attending school every day, some schools are sending the opposite message: we do not want you here.  By high school, many students have internalized this message and stop attending altogether.


Figure 3: Middle School Students Are Most Likely to Be Suspended[18]


Recommendations for the State Board

            The information that I have presented so far about attendance and school discipline brings me to my recommendations for the State Board.  DC Lawyers for Youth believes that we need to examine all of these issues through the lens of school engagement.  Our overall goal should be to have every student in school every day, engaged in class and learning the schools necessary to become a successful adult.  In its role advising on and approving state policies, the Board should advance two key ideas.

            First, the Board should advocate for efforts to increase school attendance to not focus solely on enforcement against students who do not attend, but also include proactive efforts to enhance students’ desire and ability to attend school.  This requires paying attention to not only the logistical sorts of barriers that often prevent students from attending school – transportation, lack of clean clothes, etc. – but also to the psychological and educational factors that result in school disengagement.  Schools should actively strive for a warm and welcoming school climate, and ensure that they provide differentiated instruction that allows students who have fallen behind to still feel that schools is a useful and productive place for them to be.       

            Second, the Board should ensure that the District’s attendance policies recognize that both unexcused and excused absences deprive students of instructional time, and further that absences due to suspension are an especially harmful form of excused absence.  When schools send students home for minor disciplinary infractions, it undermines our efforts to convey the importance of school attendance.  If we want to have every student learning every day, we must stop suspending so many of our students, and instead strengthen our in-school responses to disruptive behavior.  Restorative justice programs, after-school community service, or simply a trip to the principal’s office are all examples of ways to address behavior while keeping students in school and engaged in learning.


            In conclusion, I would like to thank the Committee for the opportunity to testify on this issue.  The District’s policies shape whether students are likely to become high school graduates and also whether students are likely to become entangled in the juvenile justice system.  DC Lawyers for Youth is committed to helping find solutions that provide the best outcomes for the city’s young people.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have.

[1] See, e.g., Emma Brown and Keith L. Alexander, “Truancy, Absenteeism a Chronic Problem in D.C. Schools,” The Washington Post, April 28, 2014, sec. Local,

[2] DC Public Schools Performance Oversight Responses Q70 Attachment_Unexcused Absences SY11-12, SY12-13 & SY13-14 (DC Public Schools, 2014),

[3] Alex Peerman, “Testimony Before the Committee on Education on the FY2014 Performance of the Deputy Mayor for Education,” DC Lawyers for Youth, accessed June 12, 2014,

[4] Attendance Matters Truancy Prevention Guide: A Resource Guide for Parents and Legal Guardians (Office of the State Superintendent of Education, n.d.),

[5] David A. Catania, South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012, 2012, 3,

[6] Attendance Matters Truancy Prevention Guide: A Resource Guide for Parents and Legal Guardians.

[7] DC Public Schools Performance Oversight Responses Q70 Attachment_CFSA_CSS_SST SY12-13 & SY13-14 (DC Public Schools, 2014),

[8] Alex Peerman, “Testimony Before the Committee on Education on the FY2014 Performance of the Deputy Mayor for Education.”

[9] DC Public Schools FY2013 Performance Oversight Responses (District of Columbia Public Schools, February 2014), 88–89.

[10] This figure was calculated using the in-seat attendance figures for all students at each school in the joint DCPS-PCSB Equity Reports.  Each school’s in-seat attendance was subtracted from 100 to produce a non-attendance rate, which was then multiplied by the sample size of students for each school.  The results were summed and then multiplied by a 180-day school-year to produce the final result.  Equity Reports Attendance Data (DC Public Schools and DC Public Charter School Board, 2013),

[11] This figure was calculated using the unexcused absence figures for all students at each school in the joint DCPS-PCSB Equity Reports.  First, the rate of unexcused absence for each band (1-5, 6-10, etc.) was multiplied by the student sample size for each school to determine the number of students who had that number of unexcused absences.  Then these figures were multiplied by the maximum number of days in that band.  For example, the students in the 11-15 band were assumed to be absent for 15 days.  Students in the 25+ band were assumed to be absent for 40 days.  These figures were used to determine the number of unexcused absences at each school, and then summed for the whole system.

[12] Tony Fabelo et al., Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement (Council of States Governments Justice Center and The Public Policy Research Institute, Texas A&M University, July 2011),

[13] Reducing Out-of-School Suspensions and Expulsions in District of Columbia Public and Public Charter Schools (Office of the State Superintendent of Education, June 2014), 15,

[14] Ibid., 13–14.

[15] Equity Reports Discipline Data (DC Public Schools and DC Public Charter School Board, 2013),  Data analysis by author.

[16] Alex Peerman and Eduardo Ferrer, District Discipline: The Overuse of Suspension and Expulsion in the District of Columbia (DC Lawyers for Youth, June 20, 2013), 3,

[17] Reducing Out-of-School Suspensions and Expulsions in District of Columbia Public and Public Charter Schools, 10.

[18] Ibid.

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