Committees of the Whole and Education, Truancy Hearing

Testimony of Eduardo Ferrer, Legal & Policy Director


Good afternoon Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Catania, and members of the Committee on the Whole and Committee on Education.  My name is Eduardo Ferrer and I am the Legal and Policy Director of DC Lawyers for Youth, a research, advocacy, and direct service organization that seeks to improve DC’s juvenile justice system.  Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on truancy reduction in the DC public education system. 

As you all know, truancy in the District of Columbia is a complicated issue with a multitude of root causes – including student, family, school, and community factors – that very often must be analyzed and addressed on an individual case-by-case basis.[1]  As such, there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to fixing the truancy epidemic that plagues some of our schools and some of our communities. 

In my testimony today, I would like to focus first on data that reveal existing weaknesses in our truancy-prevention system and second on what the Council can do to monitor and address those weaknesses in the coming year.

The Volume of PINS Referrals

One clear weakness in our current system is that the youth justice system is ill-suited to provide the sort of meaningful intervention necessary to address truancy.  The statistics show that there is a clear mismatch between need for services and the capacity of the Family Court system.  In 2012, there were 181 new petitions in the DC Family Court on an allegation that the youth was a person in need of supervision.[2]  As a shorthand, these proceedings are often referred to as PINS cases.  Truancy cases constitute a subset of PINS cases, and 95% of all truancy cases originate in a referral from DCPS or PCSB.[3]

In June of this year, the Council passed the Attendance Accountability Act of 2013, which requires schools to make a referral to Family Court when a student over age 14 accumulates 15 or more unexcused absences.[4]  If followed to the letter, this requirement would dramatically increase the number of youth involved in PINS cases.  At the midpoint of last school year, DCPS had 2052 students in grades 9-12 with more than ten unexcused absences.[5]  These students were therefore on pace to be referred to Family Court by the end of the school year.  PCSB had 99 students in grade 9-12 with more than 25 absences.[6]  Summing the two, we can estimate that at least 2151 students would have crossed the 15-absence threshold by the end of the 2012-13 school year.[7]  Therefore, if the new standards from the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act had been in place last year, at least 2151 PINS referrals would have been required in the 2012-13 school year.  Given that there are only approximately 181 PINS petitions each year, even if only half of these referrals are expected to generate petitions, the new requirements would require us to quintuple the size of the PINS system.

There is clearly a mismatch between the number of kids who need truancy interventions and the capacity of the PINS system.  This observation is what led the Urban Institute to conclude that it is not feasible for the primary response to truancy to be based in the court system.[8] 

The Straight A Act and Student Support Teams

Simultaneously, there is clear evidence that schools are unable to fulfill their existing obligations to intervene early with students who begin accumulating unexcused absences.  A core component of the existing truancy intervention process is holding school-based Student Support Team (SST) meetings with students who have accumulated more than five unexcused absences.  The SST is charged with evaluating the reasons for the student’s truancy, engaging the student’s parent or guardian, identifying appropriate academic and social services, and developing an action plan to get the student re-engaged with school.[9]  If functioning correctly, the SST constitutes a personalized intervention by caring adults invested in improving the student’s attendance and preventing chronic truancy.

However, the available evidence suggests that schools are simply not having SST meetings in the vast majority of cases where the law requires them.  At DCPS schools during the first half of last school year, there were 7116 students with over five unexcused absences and who were thus supposed to have an SST meeting.[10]  However, only 816 SST meetings had been held.[11]  If we do the math, just 11.5% of the students who were supposed to receive an SST meeting actually received one.  Unfortunately, we do not have equivalent data for PCSB schools, so we are unable to determine to what extent the charter schools may have similar deficits.

From our position as outside advocates, we are not able to definitively identify the reasons for the low rate of SST meetings.  However, it seems likely that schools simply lack the staff resources to facilitate the large number of required interventions.  Unfortunately, this observation also suggests that similar shortcomings may exist in school’s fulfillment of their other early-intervention obligations, such as making calls to parents, sending notification letters, and conducting home visits.

School Attendance and School Pushout: Related Phenomena

Also, when we look only at unexcused absences – the measure used to calculate chronic truancy – we vastly underestimate the total number of days of school that students are missing, because the unexcused absence figures do not include the school days missed due to suspension.  When a student is suspended, the missed days are tallied as excused absences.[12]  As we detail in our research report, District Discipline, during the 2011-12 school year our schools handed out 18,006 suspensions of ten days or fewer and 714 suspensions of over ten days.[13]  Those suspensions all add up to an enormous amount of missed school.

Furthermore, there is some evidence that disciplinary exclusions from school may then decrease a student’s future attendance at school.  Attached to my testimony is a chart depicting suspension and truancy figures from the 2011-12 school year at DC high schools (see Figure 1).  In general, schools with higher suspension rates have higher truancy rates as well.  And the notion that being suspended causes students not to come to school is also compelling at a common sense level: the suspended student falls behind in class, is separated from school-engaged peers, and, perhaps most importantly, directly receives the message from a school official: “we do not want you here.”  After such an experience, it would not be surprising if a teenage student reacted by becoming less invested in school and showing up less often. 

As we attempt to reduce truancy in the District, we must remain aware of the impact that school discipline policies have on attendance.  Our goal should be to have every student in school every day.  That means reducing both unexcused absences and “excused” absences due to suspension.

The Role of the DC Council in School Year 2012-13

We have a few recommendations for the Committee on Education and the Committee of the Whole as you continue to work on truancy reduction.

Performance Oversight

During the performance oversight process in the coming year, the Council should evaluate schools’ compliance with their existing truancy intervention responsibilities.  In addition to the data on unexcused absences that the Council requested last year, DCPS and PCSB should be asked to provide the following for each school:

  • the number of students who had a truancy-related meeting with the school’s SST,
  • the number of students who received “recommendations for academic, diagnostic, or social work services” from the SST,
  • the number of students who had an “action plan” for truancy reduction developed in consultation with the student’s parent or guardian,
  • the number of students whose action plans were fully implemented,
  • the number of students that each school referred to CSS, and
  • the number of those referrals that were accepted by CSS as indicating that the school had fully complied with its early-intervention obligations.

Budgeting for Innovation in FY 2015

During the FY2015 budget cycle, the Council should prioritize strengthening schools’ ability to implement their existing truancy-reduction mandates, primarily the SSTs.  The performance oversight process may reveal that schools need more funding or technical support to effectively apply these early interventions.

Beyond strengthening these existing capabilities, the Council should encourage innovation in truancy reduction by funding pilot programs at certain schools.  The best available research on truancy intervention indicates generally that truancy intervention is a cost-effective strategy for improving student outcomes[15] – the District can expect to receive benefits such as increased student achievement, increased adult earning potential, decreased reliance on public assistance, and decreased criminal activity that well exceed the costs of intervention.  However, the research is less clear about precisely what sorts of interventions have the highest likelihood of success or are the easiest to replicate.[16]  Consequently, the District would be well advised to fund a variety of pilot programs and rigorously evaluate them to determine which is most likely to meet the District’s broader needs. 

One promising practice the District might consider is Check and Connect.  Check and Connect places mentors in schools who monitor student performance, ensure needy students receive personalized interventions, and serve as liaisons to parents, teachers, and community members.[17]  Also, the District has already allocated planning grants for nine Career Academies[18] – specialized programs within high schools that feature a small learning community, a college preparatory curriculum built around a specific field, and partnerships with local employers and colleges.[19]  These features are intended to help improve student motivation by helping them see connections between their academic work and a future career.  The Council should ensure that well-planned programs are funded and that the District’s Career Academies have re-engaging struggling students as part of their mission.  These programs, both of which aim to address the root causes of truancy, exemplify the sort that the District should look to expand in the future. 

Closing Remarks

            In closing, I appreciate all the work that the Council is doing to ensure that every student is in school every day.  I look forward to working with the staff of the various committees to continue improving upon the solid foundation laid by the South Capitol Act and the proposed Attendance Accountability Amendment Act.  Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify today.  I am available to answer questions you may have.

[1] Martha Yeide and Mel Kobrin, Truancy Literature Review (US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, October 15, 2009), 6–7,,d.dmg.

[2] Lee F. Satterfield, Family Court 2012 Annual Report (Superior Court of the District of Columbia, March 29, 2013), 75.

[3] “Status Offender,” District of Columbia Courts, n.d.,

[4] David A. Catania et al., Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013, 2013,

[5] DC Public Schools FY2012 Performance Oversight, Q67 Attendance, by Grade (Tab 2) (District of Columbia Public Schools, February 22, 2013),

[6] Performance Oversigh FY2012, PCSB Combined Responses (District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, March 14, 2013), 238–239,

[7] This figure is probably a significant underestimate.  For DCPS, it includes no students who had ten or fewer absences as of January 2013.  Given that many students have extremely poor attendance late in the school year, many of the students in this lower band likely went on to cross the threshold.  For PCSB, it includes no students who had 24 or fewer absences as of February 2014.  Some students with 24 or fewer absences had likely already crossed the referral threshold, and many more would go on to by year’s end.

[8] Akiva Liberman and Meaghan Cahill, Variation in 2010-11 Truancy Rates Among District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) High Schools and Middle School (District of Columbia Crime Policy Institute, Urban Institute, November 2012), i.

[9] Attendance Matters Truancy Prevention Guide: A Resource Guide for Parents and Legal Guardians (Office of the State Superintendant of Education, n.d.), 36,

[10] Response to Question 67, Performance Oversight Hearing on D.C. Public Schools (Committee on Education, D.C. Council, February 22, 2013), available at

[11] Response to Question 71, Performance Oversight Hearing on D.C. Public Schools (Committee on Education, D.C. Council, February 22, 2013), available at

[12] Absences, DCMR 5-A § 2102.2, n.d.,

[13] 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,

[14] Student Behavior Tracker Weekly Principals Report SY11-12 (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2012); School Year 2011-2012 Suspension and Expulsion Rates by Public Charter School (District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, September 26, 2012),; DC Public Schools FY2012 Performance Oversight Response: Q67 Attendance, by Grade (Tab 1) (District of Columbia Public Schools, January 21, 2013),; Performance Oversigh FY2012, PCSB Combined Responses, 236–237.

[15] Brandy R. Maynard et al., Indicated Truancy Interventions: Effects on School Attendance Among Chronic Truant Students (Campbell Systematic Reviews, April 6, 2012), 7,,d.dmg; T. Klima, M. Miller, and C. Nunlist, What Works? Targeted Truancy and Dropout Programs in Middle and High School (Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy, 2009), 1,

[16] Brandy R. Maynard et al., Indicated Truancy Interventions: Effects on School Attendance Among Chronic Truant Students, 50; T. Klima, M. Miller, and C. Nunlist, What Works? Targeted Truancy and Dropout Programs in Middle and High School, 6.

[17] “About Check and Connect,” October 3, 2013,

[18] “Eight D.C. Schools Receive Planning Grants to Establish Career Academies,” Washington Post, accessed October 9, 2013,

[19] “Career Academies: An Overview,” College and Career Academy Support Network, n.d.,

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