Stacy Gromatski: Focus on school truancy


Published: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 5:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 at 5:07 p.m.

It’s a classic American coming of age story, so the critics say, but everyone remembers “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as the quintessential tribute to playing hooky and classic hot-red Ferraris.

Going off to Wrigley Field and fancy French restaurants for a day of laughs and fun with no consequences is only made for the movies, though.

A real-life Ferris Bueller, with nine absences as in the movie, would be a cause for intervention.

Under Florida law, unexcused student absences ranging from five in a 30-day period or 10-to-15, in a 90-day calendar period, require the involvement of a range of people and institutions, from school officials to judges.

Truancy is one of the most perplexing public policy issues around. Everyone recognizes it when they see it, but there is no universal definition for truancy.

So it is treated mainly as a local problem, but it has broad, national consequences.

The standard statistical subtype for a Ferris Bueller is not a carefree suburban high-school student anticipating an adulthood full of possibilities, but a low-income, ill-educated, and troubled kid, on the verge of a hard life.

In its landmark 2012 report on the truancy problem, the American Bar Association’s Commission on Youth At-Risk, noted the long-term consequences of truancy: the high unemployment rate for high-school drop-outs (which truancy predicts well) is 20 percent higher than high-school graduates; employed high-school dropouts earn only 75 percent of what employed high-school graduates earn; and each high-school dropout costs society between $188,086 to $297,188 annually.

In another report, the stated costs to society in total: $240 billion in lifetime earnings and tax benefits to the national economy.

What is more, truancy predicts 97 percent of first-drug users, with the amount of days a teenager is often truant indicating greater illicit use of drugs.

In many cases, self-reported truants were seven times more likely to have been arrested than the general teenage population.

So the national implications are clear, but how it affects Florida’s future is all-the-more important to highlight.

In many ways, Florida is primed to be a model for addressing truancy: it has been a national leader in considering and adopting educational reforms in the past.

Of its habitually truant students, Florida averages 289,753 out of a total statewide population of 3 million students, according to the state’s School Indicators Report.

Interestingly, Florida’s truancy dilemma has a rural edge: rural counties such as Gadsden and Taylor, as a percentage of their student populations, have truancy rates higher than the state average of 9.6 percent, at 11.2 and 14.3 percent, respectively.

Oddly enough, this serves as a segue way into the nature and face of truancy today.

While any number of cultural indicators or structural problems of society could explain why certain groups and classes are primarily truant cases, it is nonetheless, the case that one-half of all black, Hispanic, and Native American youngsters engage in truancy.

For several years, the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services has dealt with youth at-risk of possible delinquency. At any rate, it is the reason why, as an umbrella organization for 28 crisis shelters, we became involved in the community-based agency business, especially in rural counties and urban places with high minority populations.

Last year, the Florida Network was responsible for over 12,000 at-risk youth referred for truancy-related problems.

Almost daily, our agency staff have to deal with a host of issues that influence and surround truant youth, whether that is working with the local school system, helping those at-risk youth avoid interaction with the court system, or further immersion into the juvenile justice or child welfare system --all of this is geared toward finding a result that helps those at-risk youth get on the right track.

In the end, Ed Rooney, the assistant principal in the movie, had Ferris Bueller’s truancy pegged right: “The example he sets is a first-class ticket to nowhere.”

Stacy Gromatski is president/CEO of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services.

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