Nov. 18, 1998 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: David Hefty, (352) 334-3850
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- A child skips one school day after another. The teacher and principal blame the parents for not disciplining the youngster, while mom and dad fault the school for not giving the child the benefit of the doubt.
This tug-of-war is no child's game when it frequently makes the problem of truancy worse, a new University of Florida study suggests.
"Parents and schools often polarize, and the child loses out when these two key players are not able to resolve their differences," said David Hefty, who did the research for his doctoral dissertation at UF in mental health counseling. "The impact is like having two conflicting parents. The child is able to work one against the other."
An estimated 8 to 20 percent of American students are absent from school each day without a valid excuse, said Hefty, who in early 1998 studied 50 Alachua County families with truant children and 50 families without such a problem.
"Truancy is a serious social problem because it impacts us at so many different levels," he said. "Students who skip school are at increased risk for poor academic performance, dropping out of school, depression, unemployment and even substance abuse in later life. Also at the community level, research has shown time and time again a relationship between truancy and juvenile delinquency, with interventions decreasing the daytime crime rate."
For school districts, regular student attendance is important because it affects the amount of state funding they receive, Hefty said. Large districts such as New York and Chicago have complained of losing millions of dollars as a result of truancy, he said.
The problem has worsened as society has become more transitory, Hefty said. "There isn't that old school marm stereotype that there was years ago, when there was a much closer relationship between the school and families than there is now," he said.
Truancy occurs for a variety of social and economic reasons, said Hefty, who also works as program director for the Alachua County Truancy Center.
"It's common for us to encounter youth who skip school to go out and work at a paying job because they don't have money for shoes or clothes and are embarrassed by their appearance," he said. "Or a child may have to babysit at home. At the truancy center, law enforcement have even brought in youth who were prostituting all night. For those children, school is not even a consideration."
Often, truancy comes as a complete surprise to parents, who may drop their children off at the bus stop and assume they arrive at school only to learn they have been absent for weeks, Hefty said. Even though the law requires schools to notify parents after their children have accumulated a certain number of unexcused absences, Hefty said he encourages parents to check in on a regular basis with the school system.
If a student continues to skip school, that suggests the key players in the child's life -- parents and school officials -- have failed to deal with the problem and the situation will continue until they resolve it, Hefty said.
"Schools need to make overtures toward engaging families," Hefty said. "Families work well with schools when they feel they have an ally, someone who's willing to sit down and understand their struggles."
Although the public school system already is overburdened, he said, there are other agencies to help them, including a state truancy program called Child in Need of Services/Families in Need of Services offered through the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Jim Pearce, executive director of the Corner Drug Store, a drug counseling center in Gainesville, said Hefty's research is valuable because it focuses on why young people are truant. "We see so many different types of youngsters who are truant," he said. "It isn't just to skip school to enjoy springtime, to take drugs or alcohol, or because other students skip. It's a mixed game, why they skip, and so we need to treat them individually on a case-by-case basis."
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