Truancy, simply defined, is when a student is not accounted for during the school day and, when a parent or guardian is contacted, the person is not aware of that fact.
When this occurs, a litany of issues comes into play, some legal, some personal. Whatever the reasons for a particular student to become a truant, red flags are raised.
According to a Union City Board of Education press release, starting with the 2003 school year, Union City has designated 12 "Verification Officers" who will "work to monitor attendance and investigate absences to determine if reasons for non-attendance are legitimate."
According to Union City Board of Education Superintendent Stanley Sanger, the system works through a thorough and well thought-out communication system that exists between school administrators, teachers and parents. Said Sanger, "We work very closely with the administrators in the various schools. The home of an absent student is contacted everyday that the student is out. We also have what we call 'parent liaisons' who work with all of the involved parties."
There are many facets to the issue of truancy. It is an issue that cannot be looked at in simple black and white terms. One student who skips a day of school may very well have had tickets to a Yankee game. But on the other hand, there may be a student that develops a habit of skipping school. While Union City seeks to treat any case of truancy (no matter how "minor") with equal fervor, it is the student who habitually skips school that will set the wheels of support and assistance in motion.
Said Sanger, "Truancy can be the first sign that a child is experiencing problems. Many truants drop out of school or become involved in crime. The Board of Education is sending a clear message that we have zero tolerance for truancy but want our children to have every opportunity in life, which begins with a good education."
Continued Sanger, "Every school in the district has a 'support service committee.' These are comprised of administrators, teachers, the school nurse, child study teams, the school social worker - they will assess each student's background and situation, and a plan of action will be devised from there."
Sanger admitted that dealing with the issue of truancy can sometimes be an uphill battle as the complexities and pressures of modern-day urban life can get in the way of a parent with the best of intentions for their child.
Said Sanger, "Many parents are working two jobs or there are single parent homes. Other times, there are people from other lands who may not be aware of their role as parents in the United States. It's our job to educate these parents to how they can become partners in the education process. We call this our 'parent university' concept."
Union City schools are assisted by an electronic messaging system called "PACE," which according to Sanger, is a computerized system that calls the home of an absent student and alerts the parent/guardian that the student is not present at school. Another interesting feature of the system is that if it attempts to call a home and is not able to get through, it will alert the school's administrators, and one of the 12 Verification Officers will be sent to find the student and retrieve updated information.
Also announced last week was a strict registration process that has been designed to ensure that only students who reside in Union City are able to attend classes within the district.
Interestingly and somewhat paradoxically, Union City's designation as an Abbott "special needs" district makes it very attractive to parents that live in districts outside of the Abbott district. The Abbott designation provides for monies and services that may not exist in other towns or cities. In the past, according to Union City Board of Education, the standards that were offered at Union City schools attracted unauthorized attendance by children from nearby towns.
According to Sanger, the most important factor in this is that it keeps class sizes down to a manageable average of 21 students per classroom.
West New York
West New York's truancy policies haven't changed much over time, with the current administration adhering to an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" policy. This does not mean that West New York takes the issue of truancy lighter than Union City.
It begins, according to West New York Board of Education Superintendent Anthony Yankovich, very simply. Said Yankovich, "What we have is a student handbook handed out in the high school on the very first day of classes, so they know what the rules are right away. They know what is expected of them. And that handbook includes the district's rules on truancy and absenteeism."
In the grade schools, added Yankovich, the students are told by their teachers what is expected of them.
When it comes to truancy, West New York does not fool around. Said Yankovich, "If it happens once, the very next day, the student must bring their parent or guardian to school to discuss why the student was absent. The student will not be admitted without this."
Added Yankovich, "If it happens more than once, court action may become necessary."
But before it gets to that point, the district, much like Union City, has support groups in place to study why a student may be truant.
Said Yankovich, "What we do in the high school with kids older than 16 is do research into what the situation is at home. Are the parents involved? Is there maybe a drug problem somewhere? Most of the time, if we find a problem, we will bring in what we call a 'child study team' They do the research into a given situation. If a drug problem or similar problem is found, we will send in what is called an 'intervention team,' which will work alongside a SAC or 'substance abuse counselor' and teachers. It's a real team effort."
The situation is somewhat different when children are under 16 years of age. At 16 years of age, a student can legally quit school. Before that age, the student is still considered a minor and can't do such a thing. These younger students fall under the legal auspices of the Board of Education in a much deeper way.
If there is an ongoing truancy problem with a 16 and under student, the attendance officer has the legal power to bring the parent to court. Fines and jail time could be levied, though it rarely comes to that. Usually, the embarrassment and disruption of becoming involved in the legal system is enough for most parents and students to straighten up.
According to Yankovich, the state's courts have, in the past, referred many cases of 17 and over truant students back to the school system, as students at this age are considered to be almost adults.