Kids Who Cut School: When Should We Intervene?

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Although many states now operate mandatory programs to address student absenteeism—which is considered a strong predictor of later misbehavior— there’s a wide range of views among educators and juvenile justice practitioners across the country about when intervention is most effective.

The problem is complicated by the lack of research to determine the types of interventions that are most successful at reducing absenteeism and steering truant kids away from more serious delinquent behavior.

A study by researchers at the University of Nebraska has attempted to fill the knowledge gap by zeroing in on 12 different programs in 137 schools around the state.

The researchers found that the most effective intervention programs were those that targeted young people with the highest rate of absences (20 percent or more).

“It’s been difficult to evaluate programs that aim to reduce absenteeism since there are so many differences in how absenteeism is measured,” said Anne Hobbs, the study’s lead author, and director of the Juvenile Justice Institute at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Anne Hobbs

Anne Hobbs, University of Nebraska

Hobbs described the purpose and methodology of the study in a statement released last week by the Crime & Justice Research Alliance. The study was published in the Justice Evaluation Journal, a publication of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.

“We identified a common way to define absenteeism across programs and then evaluated programs that address a range of absence levels,” Hobbs said. “This can help us determine when to intervene, how to respond, and to whom interventions should be directed.”

The authors identified what they called a difference in “philosophy” between educational and juvenile justice systems about how to most effectively address absenteeism. Educators, they claimed, largely advocate for early identification and intervention to ensure that students don’t fall behind academically and stay attached to school.

Conversely, defenders of the juvenile justice approach are often reluctant to intervene with students who are only intermittently absent from school, arguing that early efforts to deal with them could result in over-supervision and “exposure to delinquent peers by blending low and high risk juvenile populations,” the researchers wrote.

The authors of the study said their findings indicated that good outcome results (reducing absenteeism) “are more consistent with the juvenile justice approach to interventions,” namely identifying and working with children who are demonstrably prone to chronic absenteeism.

Absenteeism was defined as including all types of absences, categorized into eight absence types and classified as both excused absences (administrative/school activity, suspension, religious/funeral, and medical/illness) and unexcused absences (truant, parent acknowledged, medical/illness, and unverified).

Some 1,606 children and adolescents were involved in the study. The study sample included both boys and girls of different races and ethnicities. According to the researchers, African-American youth and American Indian youth were more likely to have the highest absenteeism rates, and males were more likely to be referred to intervention programs at the lower rates of absenteeism than females.

The other authors of the study were Marijana Kotlajab, of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Public Affairs and Community Service in Omaha; and Lindsey Wylie, of the Juvenile Justice Center, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha College of Public Affairs and Community Service in Lincoln, NE.

The full study can be downloaded here.

Editor’s Note: The Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College will examine this and other juvenile justice issues at a special conference this week on Oct. 4 and Oct. 5, on “Unfinished Business: Children and Justice.” Follow The Crime Report’s conference coverage here.

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