OPINION: Skipping school can lead to fines, probation, and even imprisonment. That needs to change.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off introduced audiences to a high-schooler with a remarkable ability to skip school without getting caught. We were treated to a teen’s perfectly concocted day of hooky: a joyride in a Ferrari, a tour of an art museum, lunch at an upscale restaurant — even an afternoon parade.
The ’80s classic romanticized the adventures that stem from skipping a day of school. But it’s all fun and games only up until the moment you get caught.
Ferris ultimately evaded the grasp of his vindictive dean, but many young people do get caught — and have to face the consequences. In some cases, parents are notified, and attendance is closely monitored. But chronic absence can lead to a far more serious result: conviction in Provincial Offences Court.
Ontario’s Education Act defines any intentional, unjustified, or illegal absence from compulsory education as truancy. If you are “habitually absent” — a concept open to interpretation by school officials — s. 30(5) of the Education Act allows for penalties under the Provincial Offences Act.
Young people aged six to 18 are required to attend school. However, only those under 16 can be charged with truancy. S. 21(2) provides examples of acceptable reasons for missing school, such as being sick or participating in religious holidays. Those absent for other reasons may be penalized if found guilty. The Education Act and the Provincial Offences Act refer to these penalties, which can involve fines, probation, and even imprisonment. The Globe and Mail reports that, in 2015, the Toronto District School Board referred 167 cases to the courts.
It’s in the public interest to ensure school attendance. Schools provide a supervised safe space and allow young people to receive social, mental, and physical education. Absenteeism negatively affects academic success and is even a predictor of dropout rates.
In principle, it makes sense to have deterrents to ensure that young people attend school. But the punishments currently in place don’t adequately address the underlying issues.
While Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may have been about teenage rebellion and the thrill of ditching school to explore the big city, many young people have more compelling reasons for their absences:
Research has shown that almost half of all truants live in single-parent families headed by women. When you combine this with a low socioeconomic background, it is not inconceivable that a young person may have obligations that they prioritize over school attendance, such as taking care of a sibling or making other contributions to the home. In families caught in poverty, parents may place less value on education and more on a young person’s earnings from a part-time job.
Unlike physical disabilities, learning disabilities can be difficult to identify. Young people confronting such challenges may be identified as having behavioural issues. If schools or parents fail to identify their needs or have assessments done, young people might find school unrewarding.
History of Abuse
Young people struggling with things like abandonment, physical or sexual abuse, or substance abuse may exhibit anti-social behaviours, and be more likely to be truant.
Not only are these personal issues that most individuals may be reluctant to share, but children and adolescents are often placed in power dynamics where their voices are silenced, either intentionally or unintentionally. Is recourse to the justice system the most efficient way to combat truant behaviour and its underlying issues?
The court process for truancy can be lengthy. The court will often ask the young person to return to prove they’ve made progress in adjusting their attendance, with the expectation that the threat of a conviction will be enough to change their behaviour. The court will also often try to identify the reasons for truancy and then work with the school boards to find reasonable solutions.
But truancy isn’t an offence best handled by the justice system, which criminalizes and stigmatizes behaviour. We can acknowledge the value in encouraging school attendance, but there should be alternative forms of deterrence for those who skip.
Schools should continue to communicate with parents and children to better understand the underlying issues, and resources should be directed at finding and addressing the root causes of truant behaviour. Both parents and schools should then develop a plan to promote re-engagement of absent youth. Many school boards already provide truant students with alternatives to the traditional school model. The Peel District School Board, for example, offers a Supervised Alternative Learning program for students at risk of leaving school early, providing a flexible framework for their education.
Communities in which anti-truancy programs have been successful use a combination of rewards and sanctions to keep student in school. For example, in Florida, truancy can make you ineligible to receive or maintain driving privileges. Schools could partner with employers, social service agencies, and law enforcement to minimize truant behaviours.
Chronic truancy isn’t the same thing as skipping school to have an adventure. It’s not a failure of the young person — it indicates that they lack necessary support. Many schools and school boards do intervene before a conviction arises, but the fact that legislation characterizes truancy as a punishable offence is deeply concerning for those who fall through the cracks.
Truancy rarely occurs in isolation; it is a complex and serious problem that is likely to occur in conjunction with school, community, or household issues. If we are to deal with the complex issues that create it, we need to get rid of the current archaic penalties.
This article was published on TVO.