The City’s Human Services Committee is considering an ordinance that would treat chronic truants with a system of fines and administrative adjudication that would involve the local community and the police department.
Restorative Justice Evanston, a community group composed of persons from the City, the police department and the community at large, has said that the high truancy rate in Evanston is a problem. According to the state school report card, Evanston Township High School has a chronic truancy rate of 3.9 percent, compared with the state rate of 2.5 percent.
Under Illinois State law (105 ILCS 5/26-1), with some exceptions, “Whoever has custody or control of any child between the ages of 7 and 16 years shall cause such child to attend some public school in the district wherein the child resides the entire time it is in session during the regular school term.”
Regrettably, enforcement of this law is not working. Under the present system, chronic truants are referred to the Cook County Regional Office of Education, which at best has a three-month backlog. By the time there is any meaningful communication between the Regional Office and the family of a chronic truant, an academic semester is essentially wasted. That three-month lag-time is essentially a pass for kids who do not want to go to school.
At ETHS, the attendance office, computers and alert teachers have the task of informing parents that a child has missed a day or a portion of a day of school. Again, there is nothing to persuade chronic truants to return to school, and there are few consequences for a child who does not wish to go to school.
Missing school, though, is just the tip of the iceberg. It is symptomatic of chaos somewhere in a child’s life: A chronic truant may be a willful child who has something to prove to friends, family or teachers. Often, though, the cause is more catastrophic: substance abuse, mental illness, family dysfunction, abject poverty, homelessness or falling into bad company.
We are glad that Restorative Justice Evanston brought this issue forward and that the Human Services Committee is considering it. We are most gratified, though, that the aldermen are taking time to consider the wider impact and implications of the ordinance as it is proposed.
We recognize that truancy is illegal but we do not think that illegality is the main problem associated with it. Someone without a high school education is likely to be lost. Job prospects are minimal, potential growth is limited, and the future is bleak.
We understand that chronic truants are damaging not only themselves but also their families, ETHS and the community.
In addition, we understand that Restorative Justice Evanston, which has obviously been considering this problem for quite some time, would like to see some enforcement mechanism.
“Restorative justice” is a means of seeking peaceful, non-adversarial solutions to social harms, and that concept fits well with the problem of chronic truancy. Given that, we do not think that fines are the way to go. It is not likely that a family or a student unwilling to take advantage of a free education would do an about-face when threatened with a fine.
Considering the complexity of the problem and the multitude of sad reasons for chronic truancy, we think a more immediately effective social-services model rather than a punitive model is the better approach. Children and their families need to be convinced that an education will make a positive and long-lasting difference in their lives.
In addition, the issue of police involvement is a very sensitive one and one that would require utmost caution.
We understand the Human Services Committee has requested additional information about such programs in other cities. In addition, there will be a lot of citizen input. It may be a long, tough road, but the trek has begun.