Table of Contents
Transitions of Truants: Community Truancy Board as a Turning Point in the Lives of Adolescents
Charles L. Johnson
University of Maine, Presque Isle, Maine
Kevin A. Wright
Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona
Paul S. Strand
Washington State University Tri-Cities, Richland, Washington
Charles L. Johnson, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Maine at Presque Isle; Kevin A. Wright, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University; Paul S. Strand, Department of Psychology, Washington State University Tri-Cities
The authors owe a debt of gratitude to many people who worked in significant ways to help us with the funding, research, and development of the evaluation report on which this paper is based. Specifically, we wish to thank: Nicholas P. Lovrich, Director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services at Washington State University; Dr. Tom George of the Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington; Bonnie Bush, Courtney Meador, Martin Kolodrub, and Jennie Marshall of the Spokane County Juvenile Court; Larry Bush of the West Valley School District; Washington State University Criminal Justice Program graduate students Nichole Skaggs and Maureen Erickson; and Criminal Justice undergraduate student Starcia Ague. In addition, funding under the Models for Change juvenile justice reform initiative of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation made the study on which this article is based possible. All statements and conclusions are the authors’ and not necessarily representative of the organizations or individuals listed above. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Charles L. Johnson, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Maine, Presque Isle, ME 04769. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Keywords: truancy, community truancy board, life-course theory, social support, truancy intervention
School dropout represents a major turning point in a person’s life that could be seen as an initial step on a difficult pathway to reduced conventional opportunities. The challenge is to identify interventions that can successfully reintegrate students back into a school setting in a manner that encourages continued attendance and involvement. One such program is the West Valley Community Truancy Board in Spokane, Washington. In addition to the truancy board process, the program employs a court-appointed officer to mentor students and manage the overall process of identifying and attending to the risks and needs that promote truancy. Guided by Sampson and Laub’s (1993) age-graded theory of informal social control and Cullen’s (1994) application of social support to delinquency, the current analysis seeks to determine the overall effectiveness of the truancy board based on both quantitative analyses of outcomes and qualitative interviews with key actors. We discuss the implications for the ongoing theoretical, empirical, and policy debates surrounding truancy intervention.
In 2004, nearly 56,000 truancy petitions were filed in state courts—69% more than a decade earlier. Truancy cases generated the largest share of the adjudicated status offense caseload that resulted in out-of-home placement (Stahl, 2008). These statistics likely underestimate the true extent of truancy-related problems, as states vary widely in their definition and thus handling of truancy (Sutphen, Ford, & Flaherty, 2010). Although it is unclear whether truant behavior or simply truancy processing is increasing, the end result is the same: precious system resources are diverted toward handling school absences and youth face potentially punitive responses for their behavior, which may ultimately result in further deviance and delinquency. The challenge, then, is to develop effective interventions that can identify and address the causes of truancy before system involvement is warranted.
Despite the necessity of rigorous evaluations of existing intervention programs, relatively few empirical assessments appear in the scholarly literature. Even fewer theoretically-informed evaluations have been conducted, which puts these programs’ generalizability and their potential for replication in diverse areas in question. A more abstract understanding of what works in truancy reduction would allow researchers to develop a general toolkit for truancy prevention that states and school districts could tailor to their particular demographics and administrative needs. A step in this direction would be to integrate Sampson and Laub’s (1993) age-graded theory of informal social control with Cullen’s (1994) ideas about social support and delinquency to produce a more comprehensive framework for understanding truancy. Doing so would enable practitioners and administrators alike to more clearly appreciate how the response to truancy affects future life outcomes.
Accordingly, the current study evaluates the West Valley Community Truancy Board approach to truancy in Spokane, Washington. The program employs a court-appointed officer to mentor students and manage the overall process of identifying and attending to the risks and needs that promote truancy. This process involves school administrators, court officials, community members, and the student and family in order to provide a multifaceted approach to truancy intervention. Guided by life-course and social support theories, we combine both quantitative and qualitative data to determine the overall effectiveness of the West Valley Community Truancy Board. The broader purpose of our research is to provide a theoretically-informed evaluation of an innovative approach to the reduction of school truancy.
Age-graded Theory of Informal Social Control
Developmental and life-course theories provide a framework for understanding how events early in an individual’s life can affect later outcomes such as employment opportunities and marriage (for an overview, see Farrington, 2003). In particular, the age-graded theory of informal social control (Sampson & Laub, 1993, 2005; Laub & Sampson, 2003) applies life-course principles to understand both continuity and change in juvenile delinquency and adult criminal involvement. The theory predicts that structural background factors (e.g., poverty) and individual differences (e.g., conduct disorders) will impact both social control, including school attachment and performance, and the influence of deviant peers. According to this theory, the outcomes of these processes on juveniles, such as truancy and delinquency, will then influence the juvenile’s ability to establish and maintain strong social bonds in adulthood, which are presumed to be incompatible with continued criminal behavior. Thus, the theory describes why school truancy and dropout may assume an importance in an individual’s life that goes beyond mere absence from the classroom.
There are two key and related components of Sampson and Laub’s (1993) age-graded theory of social control: first, that certain turning points in a juvenile’s life may redirect his or her overall life trajectory; and second, that individuals and institutions can be responsible for creating the necessary informal social control or social capital that makes conventional behavior and opportunities viable options for youth. As Sampson and Laub (1993) define it, social capital refers to relationships and interdependencies that facilitate informal social control. For example, in education in particular, Sampson and Laub (1993) find that school attachment, defined as the combination of an individual’s attitude toward school and overall academic ambition, acts to inhibit delinquency. These researchers find no significant relationship between school performance and delinquency—thus, juveniles may not necessarily need to do well in school (as identified by formal grading evaluations), but rather need only to have an attachment to school for school to positively affect future behavior. More recent empirical work has reaffirmed the original findings of Sampson and Laub in documenting the importance of school attachment for avoiding future delinquent behavior (see, for example, Henry & Huizinga, 2007). In essence, a program designed to foster this attachment could conceivably act as a turning point in the life of an individual who had, up to that point, experienced structural and cognitive disadvantage.
In the absence of such turning points, it is likely that a wayward juvenile will continue on a deviant path into adulthood through a process of cumulative disadvantage (Sampson & Laub, 1997). Delinquency “incrementally mortgages the future by generating negative consequences for the life chances of stigmatized and institutionalized youth” (Laub & Sampson, 2003, p.51). Opportunities for conventional behavior such as legitimate employment are thus “knifed off” (Caspi & Moffitt, 1995; see also Maruna & Roy, 2007) in a process that encourages continued deviant behavior in the absence of acceptable alternatives. Stated differently, without sufficient attention to risks and needs early in a youth’s life, he or she may be doomed to a lifestyle with limited options for success. The primary benefit of putting developmental and life-course theories into practice, therefore, is that they allow for interventions early in life to suspend this process in favor of a more promising future for youth.
To the extent that school truancy represents an early risk factor for a life of cumulative disadvantage, our task is to develop programs that can serve as turning points in the lives of adolescents. A successful program would account for the individual-, family-, community-, peer-, and school-based factors associated with school absences. Although this is admittedly no easy task, significant advancements have been made in Multisystemic Therapy (Henggeler, 1997), a program that successfully incorporates evidence-based principles to address the myriad risk factors associated with juvenile delinquency in order to build social capital (Cullen & Gendreau, 2000; Curtis, Ronan, & Borduin, 2004). Although interventions such as Multisystemic Therapy can account for the development of social capital so crucial to Sampson and Laub’s theory, it is unclear how, specifically, social capital is created in a disadvantaged population.
To Sampson and Laub (1993), social capital is an intangible concept consisting of relationships and interdependencies that facilitate informal social control. But what are the factors that influence and facilitate the development of social capital itself? A promising approach to answering this question would integrate ideas related to the provision of social support to identify and understand what constitutes turning points in the age-graded theory of informal social control. Social support is certainly similar to social capital, but social support implies actual giving and receiving on the part of actors. Social support can be defined as “the perceived or actual instrumental and/or expressive provisions supplied by the community, social networks, and confiding partners” (Lin, 1986, p. 18). It thus consists of an instrumental dimension, which involves the use of a relationship as a means to achieve a goal (e.g., finding a job), and an expressive dimension, which involves the use of a relationship as an end as well as a means (e.g., venting frustrations). Providing social support to truant youth could, therefore, consist of finding alternative schooling that may be a better fit for the individual (instrumental), or reaching an understanding of the true causes of truancy and how they may be addressed (expressive).
Cullen (1994; see also Cullen, Wright, & Chamlin, 1999) is largely responsible for incorporating the idea of social support into the study of crime and delinquency specifically. Perhaps most importantly, he acknowledges that social support can be delivered at multiple levels, from individuals, families, and communities. His overall argument is that the degree of social support can vary across these domains, and that more social support is likely to result in lower levels of deviance and crime. Indeed, a central proposition of this paradigm is that social support across the life cycle increases the likelihood that individuals will turn away from a criminal pathway. Research has indicated that the concept of social support provides a promising approach to explaining the trajectory of crime and deviance (e.g., Meadows, 2007), especially at the aggregate level (see Pratt & Cullen, 2005). Overall, combining the age-graded theory of informal social control with notions of social support provides both an understanding of, and a prescription for, the issue of school truancy.
An exhaustive review of the truancy intervention literature is beyond the scope of this analysis (for reviews, see Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011; Jones, 2009; Lehr, Hansen, Sinclair, & Christenson, 2003; Sutphen et al., 2010; Wilson, Gottfredson, & Najaka, 2001). Rather than focus on previous works, we believe a more detailed explanation of the current West Valley Community Truancy Board would benefit the reader. Nonetheless, we do wish to call attention to two limitations of previous works and programs.
First, rarely do researchers and practitioners consider the theoretical underpinnings of existing programs, especially from a deviance and criminal justice perspective (refer to Henry & Huizinga, 2007; Ventura & Miller, 2005). As noted above, this limitation is crucial when considering the replication of a program in other settings. Evaluation studies focused solely on outcomes or mere correlates of truancy are unable to suggest why programs are successful or unsuccessful from a theoretical standpoint. Second, existing programs to reduce truancy are often limited by not having a specific agent of social support to attend to youth in an individualized manner. If such agents do exist, their contributions are often not identified specifically in the literature when entire programs or interventions are evaluated.1 Thus, a particularly important component of reducing truancy (as identified by existing theory) is overlooked in focusing on the larger picture. With these two limitations in mind, we seek to provide a theoretically-informed analysis of the West Valley Community Truancy Board with an added focus on the importance of a court-appointed Truancy Specialist.
Schools in Washington State are mandated under the state’s truancy statute (BECCA Bill of 1995—E2SSB 5439) to inform the student’s parent or guardian, either in writing or by telephone, of one unexcused absence. Subsequent unexcused absences result in progressively greater detailed attention until the absences become chronic. After five unexcused absences within one month, the parent and the school are required to enter into a contract to help to improve attendance. An option at that point is for the student to be referred to a community truancy board in an effort to prevent a court petition, which is allowed (but not mandated) after either seven unexcused absences in one month or 10 absences over the span of one academic year.
Continuously operating since 1996–1997, the West Valley Community Truancy Board seeks to address the problem of truancy by engaging truant youth and their families in a restorative justice‐oriented program, in which a variety of resources are brought to bear to improve school attendance and academic performance. The goal of the intervention is successful school re‐engagement and renewed progress toward school completion. The Spokane Juvenile Court works in partnership with the several schools within the West Valley School District. When a truant student comes before the truancy board, the board places a stay on the Spokane County Juvenile Court’s truancy petition so board members can collaborate with the student, family, school, and community to find a solution to that student’s truancy issues. The student and family sign an agreement with the truancy board indicating they will make their best efforts to change what is needed so the child can attend school. If there is a failure to meet the standards and goals set in the agreement, the board will lift the stay and the child and family will have to go to juvenile court.
The West Valley Community Truancy Board meets in a conference room in one of the schools in the district. The Board meets monthly until the end of the school year approaches, at which time the meetings become more frequent (i.e., once every two weeks) as more students accumulate 10 absences for the year. A horseshoe table is set up at the far end of the room, and a row of chairs is positioned in front of the table for the student and family. Board members introduce themselves individually to the student and family, indicating their connection to the school district or community. Each truancy board member receives a packet of school attendance and academic information on each student prior to each meeting, including the name of the school the student is attending, school attendance patterns for the present year, current and past grades, and a summary of completed credits on record. The meeting administrator then briefly explains the Becca Bill and possible future court consequences if the problem of non-attendance is not resolved in accordance with the community truancy board’s findings and conditions of compliance. A question and answer session lasts for approximately 10-20 minutes, the goal of which is to determine the obstacles or barriers that might stand in the way of the student attending school on a regular basis. These obstacles can range from school-based problems, such as alleged harassment, to family-based problems, such as obligations to care for younger siblings. A contract containing specific steps that are to be taken to attend school is drafted at this meeting, and it is signed by the student and family, as well as by the meeting administrator.
Through grant funding from the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, the Spokane County Juvenile Court has contracted with a Probation Officer Truancy Specialist to work with truant youth in the district. In using the Check & Connect model—which utilizes the four components of mentoring, systematic monitoring, timely individualized intervention, and enhancing home-school support—the Truancy Specialist can work with students in the school district on a more personal level, periodically meeting with the student and family. In short, the Truancy Specialist has what Milliken (2007) termed “magic eyes”—the ability to see solutions and assets across multiple agencies and opportunities within the community. Indeed, the Truancy Specialist has an office in each of the schools in the district so that he or she can be available on site when needed.
The West Valley Community Truancy Board has a strong theoretical and empirical foundation for the reduction of truancy and the creation of additional conventional options for youth. The implicit goal of the West Valley Community Truancy Board is to avoid students’ formal adjudication and processing in the juvenile court system. The Truancy Specialist acts as an agent of social support, providing the physical and emotional resources needed for the student to develop social capital and, ultimately, bonds that foster informal social control. In addition to these strong theoretical foundations, the program in Spokane employs two major evidence-based practices as documented in the literature. First, the program is multi-faceted and combines interventions across domains of the individual, family, school, and community (Bazemore, Stinchcomb, & Leip, 2004; Sutphen et al., 2010). To this is added the involvement of the juvenile court, resulting in a holistic yet flexible response to truancy that recognizes youth are involved in multiple systems that directly and indirectly influence their behavior (Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011). Second, and equally important, is the use of the aforementioned Check & Connect model as the mechanism by which the Truancy Specialist provides youth with social support. The model is well supported in the literature as a means to reduce truancy (Anderson, Christenson, Sinclair, & Lehr, 2004; Christenson et al., 1997; Gandy & Shultz, 2007; Lehr, Sinclair, & Christenson, 2004), and may be especially potent when used by an individual who is able to bridge the multiple systems identified above. Given these strong foundations, the current analysis seeks to answer the following question: Is the West Valley Community Truancy Board effective in providing an alternative to the juvenile court for the successful handling of truancy cases?
Data and Methods
In the spirit of Sampson and Laub (1993; see also Ventura & Miller, 2005), we seek to combine both quantitative and qualitative data in our analysis of the West Valley Community Truancy Board. Data for the quantitative analyses include school outcome measures (e.g., dropout rates) on both truant youth who attended the West Valley School District as well as truant youth who attended other schools in Spokane County. The Administrative Office of Courts in Washington State maintains linked datasets for juvenile justice research, and that office provided our research team with comparative data for students enrolled in the West Valley School District as well as three additional school districts within Spokane County. The data available made it possible to compare the school completion outcomes and court involvement of 9th grade students for the school years of 2004-2005, 2005-2006, and 2006-2007. Because these data were privileged (restricted to use by the Administrative Office of the Courts by agreement of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction), we did not obtain raw data; the data were secured and analyzed by individuals at the Administrative Office of the Courts and only the results of the analyses were shared with us. Overall, the data represent almost 3,500 youth, 621 of whom eventually had truancy petitions filed against them (see Table 1 for descriptive statistics).
Table 1. Characteristics of the Sample
(n = 843)
(n = 323)
(n = 2,276)
n = 239
n = 604
n = 182
n = 141
n = 200
n = 2,076
|Gender (% female)||49||49||48||47||38||47|
|Race (% minority)||16||11||12||13||11||10|
|Over-age for grade (%)||36||16||86||81||25||17|
|Grade 9 credits||4.4||5.9||1.9||2.7||4.2||5.6|
|Age at truancy||15.8||NA||15.7||NA||16.0||NA|
|Prior truancy (% before age 15)||2||2||33||13||18||1|
|Prior offense (% before age 15)||22||5||35||21||13||4|
We culled qualitative data from interviews and focus group sessions with key actors involved in the West Valley Community Truancy Board process as well as involved students and parents. We conducted semi-structured interviews with 28 current and former truancy board members and school administrators to identify what they perceived as the primary roles and attributes of the board (see Appendix I for questions asked). As part of the Check & Connect program, the Truancy Specialist conducted semi-structured interviews with 68 students and 32 parents to learn their opinions about the usefulness of the West Valley Community Truancy Board process (see Appendix II for questions asked). Finally, three follow-up focus group sessions involved a total of 28 interviewees (e.g., principals and court officials) who could provide further insight into the foundation, formation, and ideas behind the West Valley Community Truancy Board. The rich qualitative data captured from these interviews thus augments our quantitative data. In addition, because the quantitative analyses include students who completed the process before the position of the Truancy Specialist was created, the qualitative analyses address this critical component of the social support process.
The analysis proceeded in two stages to integrate the quantitative with the qualitative data. First, we performed chi-square analyses to determine whether there were significant differences in key outcome measures across three groups (West Valley School District, n = 843; contract-based education , n = 323; and combined comparison districts from Spokane County, n = 2,276). This allowed us to determine whether West Valley School District students performed better on court and educational outcomes compared with similarly situated students who did not receive the truancy intervention.3 We then re-ran the analyses using matched samples in an attempt to account for possible selection effects (total n = 308).4 Researchers from the Administrative Office of the Courts matched West Valley School District students with students from the comparison district on the following variables: gender, race, over-age for grade, and Grade 9 credits (see Table 1). These supplemental analyses increased our confidence that the results are due to the intervention itself and not to some existing differences in the composition of our sample. Second, we provided descriptive statistics and major themes from the interviews and focus groups to administrators, parents, and students. In our presentation of these qualitative data we focused on two major issues: 1) the overall effectiveness of the West Valley Community Truancy Board, and 2) the importance of the court-based Truancy Specialist to the overall process.
Table 2 presents the results of the chi-square analysis examining the relationship between educational outcomes and educational setting. West Valley School District truant students were more likely to graduate and less likely to drop out than truant students in the contract-based education and comparison district groups (chi-square = 50.3, p < .001). As noted in Table 1, however, West Valley School District students were also more likely to have a truancy petition filed against them (28%) compared with the similarly composed group of comparison district students (9%; Note: contract-based education students were at higher risk for truancy and less comparable to the other groups). This higher truancy rate has a direct bearing on the educational outcomes presented in Table 2. Specifically, the average number of unexcused absences at the time of filing differs for the groups (19 for comparison district students and seven for West Valley School District students). This discrepancy reflects procedural differences in the way truancy filings are conducted across these educational settings. Consistent with the standard stated in the Becca Statute, the West Valley School District uses five unexcused absences as the benchmark for filing. The other districts, in contrast, are more lenient as to when they file truancy petitions with the juvenile court. That is, students in these other districts accumulate a higher number of unexcused absences prior to the school district’s filing of a truancy petition. Accordingly, it is likely that the West Valley School District sample comprises truant youth who are, on average, at less risk than the sample of youth from the comparison districts.
Table 2. Educational outcomes of students by educational setting, full truant sample
(n = 239)
(n = 182)
(n = 200)
|Transferred Out (%)||20||15||30|
|Average Number of Unexcused Absences at Time of Filing||7||NA||19|
As a way of moving beyond these potential selection effects, researchers from the Administrative Office of the Courts matched truant students from the West Valley School District with truant students from the comparison districts on a number of key variables, including dropping out of school and unknown outcomes, transferring out of school, and graduating or earning their general equivalency diploma (GED) (see Table 3). For ease of interpretation, students who transferred out of their districts were included in the category identifying students who dropped out or had unknown outcomes. Although perhaps not as detrimental as dropping out or having an unknown outcome, transferring out of district can be considered a negative outcome, especially for at-risk students. In fact, research indicates that children who experience a greater number of family and school transitions are at higher risk for criminality than those who experience fewer transitions (Krohn, Hall, & Lizotte, 2009; Patterson, 1996). Therefore, although school districts sometimes handle the problem of truancy by transferring truant students out of district, school districts should instead try to keep them in their current schools in an effort to reduce problems associated with transitions (Milliken, 2007). The analysis presented in Table 3 shows the relationship between educational outcomes and educational setting for the matched sample of truants and offers some support for the benefit of the West Valley Community Truancy Board; truant students from the West Valley School District performed slightly better than their matched counterparts on all outcomes (chi-square = 2.72, p < 0.10).
Table 3. Educational outcomes of students by educational setting, matched truant sample
(n = 136)
(n = 172)
|Dropout/Unknown/Transferred Out (%)||56||65|
As noted above, a key shortcoming of the quantitative analyses is that they represent data from before the crucial addition of the court-appointed Truancy Specialist to the West Valley Community Truancy Board process. Therefore, the quantitative results, although positive, potentially underestimate the true relationship between the complete process and the overall outcomes for truant youth. The face-to-face interviews and focus groups augment the above results by not only providing a descriptive element to the findings, but also by including information related to the utility of the Truancy Specialist.
School Administrators and Board Members
The vast majority of the interviewees (82%) identified themselves as board members (n = 28). Thirty-nine percent of those were school administrators, 36% were community or court personnel, and 22% were teachers, counselors, or secretaries. When asked whether the truancy board should be focused on holding truant youth more accountable or whether the truancy board should be focused on helping in the restorative process, 32% said that a restorative approach was appropriate; 68% called for a balance between restoration and accountability. No participants said the West Valley Community Truancy Board should focus primarily on seeking accountability for truant youth. To determine how the participants felt about effectiveness of the West Valley Community Truancy Board, we asked interviewees their opinions about whether the board had achieved successful outcomes. Thirty-six percent responded “often”; 25% responded “not often.” Nevertheless, 82% of respondents said the West Valley Community Truancy Board provided a positive experience for truant youth.
Interviewees were generally positive about the role of the court-appointed Truancy Specialist. Sixty-eight percent said the position was either a “good” or “very good” addition to the truancy board process, while 31% voiced no opinion. No participant said the addition of the Truancy Specialist was negative. Many respondents spoke about the invaluable contributions of the Truancy Specialist, commenting that he had a “sixth sense” for understanding the needs of students and finding solutions to their problems. The following comment of an elementary school principal was echoed by others: “The Truancy Specialist fits the general philosophy that we believe in…he is there to be a problem solver for kids. He is not there as a community probation officer…he is on board with making the process an intervention rather than a punitive session. For example, there can be what you might call a snooty teenager in front of you…he likes those kids he sees as the ‘spicy ones.’ He can deal with them being spicy in ways that are way more successful and sometimes bump up against us as administrators and teachers. So, it is partly his philosophy that jives with ours to make the whole thing work.”
Parents and Students
In general, parents and students were positive about the West Valley Community Truancy Board process. Eighty-two percent of students said the process was beneficial, supported by comments such as “the group motivated me and made me aware of the issues” and “it made me feel like I was the center of attention in a good way.” A common theme identified in the student responses was that the truancy board was “way better than court.” Eighty-one percent of parents also agreed that the process was beneficial, often mentioning that the West Valley Community Truancy Board gave them an added “tool” in attending to their children’s problem behaviors. One parent commented, “I would rather explain myself to a group of caring people than a judge.” There were, however, both students and parents who believed the process was a waste of time and that relatively minor adjustments could have helped them with their truant behaviors. This speaks to the possibility that truancy petitions may have been filed against low-risk students in the West Valley School District who may not necessarily have needed the intervention of the Community Truancy Board.
Overwhelmingly, students said the role of the Truancy Specialist was vital in attending to their individual needs and concerns. Responses supporting this opinion included the following comments, in which “you” refers to the Truancy Specialist: “You worked with me to help with school and now GED”; “You are the only one that talked to me and still talks to me about health and school”; and “You gave me a tour of the other schools and helped me move over.” In short, there is a unique rapport between students and the Truancy Specialist that allows him to attend to truancy problems in an individualized way. Although parents were not directly asked about the usefulness of the Truancy Specialist, it is worth noting that they were willing to be interviewed by him about the often sensitive issues related to truancy—again indicating a rapport that is often not matched by school administrators or criminal justice personnel.
Truant behavior on the part of youth is often looked upon as an annoyance in the daily workings of education in America. Students who are seemingly either unwilling or unable to attend and participate in school regularly often “fall through the cracks.” Yet, life-course and developmental theories suggest that the failure to attend to the causes of truancy early on may put youth on a path of cumulative disadvantage. Interventions based on these theories, such as the West Valley Community Truancy Board, can potentially serve as a turning point, giving youth the social support they need to succeed in life. An important advantage of such interventions is that they fit into a juvenile rehabilitation framework that is both supported by the public (Piquero, Cullen, Unnever, Piquero, & Gordon, 2010) and is cost-effective (Welsh, 2003), which appeals to politicians and policy makers who are charged with addressing significant social problems with limited budgets (see also Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011). The current study sought to determine whether the West Valley Community Truancy Board approach offers a solution to truancy based on restorative justice and social support principles. In this regard, the work presented here leads to three broad conclusions.
First, life-course theories of informal social control and support provide a valuable framework for assessing truancy interventions. We cannot definitively say that the West Valley Community Truancy Board has served as a turning point for truant youth, yet we do have evidence that this may, in fact, be the case. Our quantitative analyses documented improved educational outcomes for a cohort of 9th grade students over a four-year period. Our qualitative analyses provided positive evaluations of the West Valley Community Truancy Board by board members, parents, and, perhaps most importantly, students themselves. The multiple agencies represented by the West Valley Community Truancy Board were able to attend to the myriad risks and needs of truant youth. Further, our findings made it clear that the Truancy Specialist, a dedicated agent of social support, is critical in understanding and handling the individualized nature of truancy. In short, when placing truancy in a developmental context, it becomes clear that interventions assume far more importance than boosting the attendance rates of schools.
Second, from a research standpoint, empirical studies of truancy intervention must go beyond atheoretical assessments of outcomes. Existing studies have provided valuable knowledge about “what works” to reduce truancy; but without a more cogent understanding of why these approaches work, such methods may experience less than promising outcomes when replicated elsewhere. We thus join other scholars (e.g., Wilson et al., 2001) in stressing the importance of going beyond assessments of individual components of what works to provide a more holistic response to truancy that is grounded in theory. Juvenile truancy has rarely been addressed in the scholarly criminological literature, yet life-course theories illustrate that it is deserving of more attention. To be sure, the causes and effects of truancy are likely to impact outcomes in adulthood, such as criminal behavior. The application of social support theory, in particular, provides a promising approach to the study of truancy that focuses on a supportive, rather than punitive, response. We hope that our work has provided a valuable step in this direction, but we acknowledge that future studies will need to operationalize and measure theoretical concepts more closely than our study has done.
Third, the policy implications of this study are that handling truancy should occur before system involvement and include members from the school, court, community, and family environments (see also Fantuzzo, Grim, & Hazan, 2005; Mueller, Giacomazzi, & Stoddard, 2006; Dembo & Gulledge, 2009). The West Valley School District appears to have created an intervention that benefits truant students compared with truant students in other districts. This intervention is guided by an overall philosophy that school re-engagement, rather than system involvement, should be the goal of a process emphasizing reintegration of students into an educational setting that works for them. Although we have focused largely on the theoretical foundations of the program, we cannot deny that the West Valley Community Truancy Board adds to the roster of studies supporting a multi-faceted approach to truancy (similar to Multisystemic Therapy as well as the Check & Connect model, specifically). The West Valley Community Truancy Board thus creates a “continuum of care” by focusing on multiple systems (court, school, family, community, and individual) using a well-supported method of truancy intervention.
Perhaps most importantly, the Truancy Specialist is able to combine these two evidence-based practices in a manner that multiplies their effects. A fundamental question remains—can this position be replicated in other settings with the same degree of success? The Truancy Specialist in the West Valley School District combines a solid background in criminal justice and youth services with an outlook that promotes successful outcomes for youth (see Appendix III for a profile of the Truancy Specialist). The current Truancy Specialist and others believe that other individuals could engage in this type of work if they have the heart and the energy to help these struggling youth. As evidence of this, other districts in Washington State (e.g., East Valley School District in Spokane) have been able to “clone” the original Truancy Specialist by employing individuals who share his enthusiasm and determination to help truant youth. Indeed, the high level of engagement by the Truancy Specialist represents the epitome of an intervention program that puts life-course theories into practice by helping to create a better future for troubled youth.
About the Authors
Charles L. Johnson, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, University of Maine at Presque Isle.
Kevin A. Wright, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, Arizona.
Paul S. Strand, PhD, is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, Washington State University, Richland, Washington.
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Questions for students involved in the Community Truancy Board process:
1) When did you first start having issues with school attendance?
2) What were the reasons you missed school?
3) What supports did you need to improve your school attendance?
4) What are the current reasons you are not attending school?
5) Did (school name) or other agencies work with you prior to the truancy board, and what did they do?
6) What is your understanding of the requirements for the Becca Bill?
7) How were you notified that you had to attend the truancy board?
8) What do you think of the truancy board process?
- What do other kids think about the process?
9) Did the truancy board help you?
- Is so, how?
- If not, why not?
10) From the time you first begin missing school until now, what should have been done differently by your schools or community agencies that would have helped you attend school?
The above questions will be slightly altered for parents/guardians.
Background of Current Truancy Specialist in the West Valley School District, Spokane, WA
- BA in Criminal Justice from Eastern Washington University.
- Corrections officer experience working with adults.
- One year internship working with At Risk Youth (ARY) at Spokane County Juvenile Court.
- Diversion board member (Neighborhood Accountability Board).
- Work crew officer at Spokane County Juvenile Court (Community Service).
- Juvenile corrections officer working with youth in a secure detention.
- Electronic home monitoring probation officer working with youth and family.
- Dependency probation officer working with children/youth who are dependents of the state.
- Aggressive Replacement Training (ART) co-facilator working with probation youth.
- Truancy Specialist.
Strengths and Philosophy of Current Truancy Specialist in the West Valley School District Spokane, WA
- Public speaking.
- Great listener (2 ears, one mouth).
- Don’t get in a hurry (It takes time to form relationships with all involved).
- Patience for all people (Take time to learn about your youth/parents/school staff).
- Explain your role to all (You may do this many times).
- Advocate for all (Students, parents, teachers, principals, etc).
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions (Don’t assume anything).
- Learn about the system you are working for and in (People like to be asked about what they do).
- Focus on the good and the bad (There is something positive in everyone’s life).
- Don’t build barriers, help youth navigate them.
- Know your staff and co-workers (Adults need relationships, too).
- Ask others who you are working with for their feedback (It will not always be positive).
- Change with the times (Be educated on new programs in your area).
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help with families (Most people want to help).
- Don’t take no for an answer (Know your limits).
- Use your resources (They are the experts).
- Keep your co-workers informed and educated (People want to know the good and the bad).
- Set goals and help all involved achieve them.
- Be a silent leader.
- Believe in change and that all people can (Some need more help and some need less).