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Thompson: Stop the Criminalization of Absenteeism / Misconduct

Examining-the-school-to-prison-pipeline-2In my experience, the two main causes of educational failure are cancer and heart disease.  Competing for the third spot are diabetes, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and incarceration.  When severe illnesses disrupt families, too many kids fall off the conveyor belt which is k-12 schooling and too few get help in climbing back on.

Rather than treat the main causes of truancy, which are the key factors that undermine families and schools, we ratcheted the blame game.  Texas has taken the resulting criminalization of absenteeism, tardiness, and school misbehavior to its most brutal conclusion.

The Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits, in School Discipline Changes Urged in Federal Complaint Against Dallas Truancy System, reports that Texas filed 113,000 truancy cases in 2012.  Granted, that is more than the number of prosecutions in the other 49 states combined.

But, it is an admittedly extreme example of the more common tendency to use the legal system to address behaviors that public schools should handle. 

Resmovits explains that the Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas, and the National Center for Youth Law, representing seven students, filed the federal complaint against four school districts. One student missed school because of a chronic respiratory disability, while another was truant because she was caring for her mother, who had heart disease. A young mother missed too much school due to medical complications after giving birth, while another was summoned to court because her legal guardian didn't call the school to tell them that she was sick.

Of course, there are students who do not have good reasons for their tardiness and/or absences.  Schools have often done as lousy of a job of enforcing those rules as they have their rules on behavior and academics. Society has a right to be frustrated by the lax enforcement of attendance and disciplinary policies. That frustration does not justify, however, the criminalization of misbehavior. The same applies to the policy of arresting students for fighting or defiance of authority.

How did we get here? Texas went beyond the bounds of rationality. But, across the nation, when dealing with all types of complicated problems, we have developed a simple regime of letting no child and no adult go unpunished.-  JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.     



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