By Lieutenant Kevin McKeon, Commander of Criminal Investigations, Norristown, Pennsylvania, Police Department; and Kelly Canally-Brown, Director of Community Prevention Services, Family Services, Norristown, Pennsylvania
critical issue facing police departments and school districts across the United States is the increasing incidence of truancy and school dropout. In addition to increasing the likelihood of school failure among minors, truancy has numerous adverse effects on the community, as truant youth often participate in unacceptable or illegal behavior that demands an increasing amount of time from local law enforcement agencies and also contributes to safety concerns among residents in high-crime areas. A 2001 report issued by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice, found that truancy has been linked to serious delinquent activity in youths and to significant antisocial behavior when these youths become adults.1 Truancy has been found to be related to substance abuse, gang activity, and involvement in such criminal activities as burglary, aggravated assault, auto theft, and vandalism.
The borough of Norristown, located approximately 20 miles northwest of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is 3.69 square miles in area and serves as the Montgomery County seat. The daytime population is more than 50,000 and falls to 30,880 at night. According to data from the 2000 U.S. census, Norristown is a diverse community, with a population that is 54 percent white, 35 percent African American, and 11 percent Latino. Norristown consistently evidences the highest rates of domestic violence, substance abuse, child abuse, school dropout, unemployment, inadequate housing, and violent crime in Montgomery County. Although Norristown is demographically small, the community is experiencing “big-city” issues. In 2005 the incidence of violent crime in Norristown increased by 41 percent from the previous year. Robbery went up 59 percent; assaults increased by 87 percent; and arson was up 63 percent from 2004. Homicides, assaults with firearms or other weapons, and other forms of violent crime occur daily in this community. The Norristown Area School District (NASD) has one of the highest incidences of truancy in the state of Pennsylvania.
From the 1999–2000 to the 2005–2006 school year, the NASD experienced a 64.5 percent increase in unexcused absences (from 34,198 in 1999–2000 to 56,322 in 2005–2006). Truant youth are often the perpetrators and victims of crime in Norristown.
If not addressed, truancy during the adolescent years can have significant negative effects on students, schools, and the community. Norristown is no exception to the national norm of increasing truancy rates. To increase school enrollment and attendance of truant students, the Norristown Police Department (NPD) has assembled a variety of community partners to develop a comprehensive, effective approach to truancy enforcement and prevention. Through enforcing Norristown’s truancy ordinance and daytime curfew, the NPD is preventing the borough’s youths from engaging in daytime juvenile crime and other problem behaviors such as drug use, weapons offenses, and chronic school attendance issues, thus reducing the risk of school dropout and increasing youths’ chances for future success.
Truancy Abatement Initiative
In response to the area’s many crime problems, the NPD decided to take a forceful stance within the community by implementing numerous community policing and social service strategies. One of the tactics initiated to combat the increasing crime rate was the Norristown Truancy Abatement Initiative. The NPD and its community partners implemented this plan to achieve the following objectives:
- Replicate a model strategy to intervene with chronic truants
- Address the root causes of truancy
- Stop youths’ progression from truancy into more serious and violent behaviors
- Reduce the rates of daytime juvenile crime
- Prevent school dropout
The Norristown approach covers five aspects of the problem in its attempt to reduce truancy.
Prevention: The NPD and its community partners have taken the lead in engaging parents of high-risk youth through outreach and parent education at community and school locations. Using national models, prevention education programs, and a community-developed parent education curriculum, police officers and community partners teach parents about risk factors for youth truancy, school dropout, gang involvement, violence, and other antisocial behaviors.
Timely Intervention: As a part of the partnership, the local school district has developed new policies and procedures to identify truant youth in a timely manner and to notify parents/guardians immediately of any unexcused absence at all grade levels. The procedures developed by the NASD reflect state recommendations of the Pennsylvania Statewide Task Force on School Attendance and Truancy Reduction, which provided guidelines for Pennsylvania school districts regarding implementation of the student achievement and attendance requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The NASD issues a letter to a truant student’s parents after each unexcused absence. After the third unexcused absence, NASD staff coordinate a school-family conference to discuss the cause of the child’s truancy and to agree on a truancy elimination plan (TEP). The TEP is developed in an effort to resolve the truant behavior and will include a review of the appropriateness of the child’s educational environment, current academic difficulties, physical or behavioral health issues, and family/environment concerns. The TEP includes the activities that will be undertaken by the school, the parents, and the child to prevent further truancy and can include use of academic and social/health supports from the school and/or community organizations.
Enforcement: A primary objective of the Truancy Abatement Initiative is to return chronically truant youths to school through the coordination and cooperation of local schools, law enforcement officers, and community agencies. NPD officers and the home and school visitors of the NASD (two patrol units) conduct continuous sweeps of the municipality three days per week for four hours per day (between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.) while school is in session. Strategies used by the truancy abatement patrol unit include apprehending youths who are on the streets during school hours, conducting home-to-home sweeps of youths who are deemed absent without excuse by the NASD home and school visitors, and patrolling areas frequented by truant youths (such as drug houses, parks, or known areas that experience daytime crime). The NPD issues citations to parents of youths apprehended as truant.
In addition, as a support to the Truancy Abatement Initiative, the NPD instituted a daytime curfew ordinance. Swift and vigorous enforcement of the daytime curfew ordinance has considerably decreased the amount of daytime juvenile loitering and reinforced the value that children be in school during school hours, increasing the school’s enrollment and attendance of high-risk students, which enables these young people to obtain an education and increase their chances of future success.
Follow-up: Citations to appear in court are issued to chronically truant students as well as those truants who fail to follow through on the activities agreed on in their TEP, resulting in additional unexcused absences. Through the NPD partnership, the District Court offers these families alternatives to paying a sizable fine, such as attending a parent education program or participating in counseling or another partnership-sponsored service. Partners in the Truancy Abatement Initiative (law enforcement, school, and community agencies) are present at each District Court hearing for truancy violators. Social services staff and other organizations meet with families after their court hearings to assess their needs for service to prevent future unexcused absences. Agency representatives conduct on-site intake assessments for counseling services at this time. Other services include drug, alcohol, and mental health screenings; housing and mentoring programs; and after-school resources. Effective coordination with the District Court has been integral to the success of the Norristown Truancy Abatement Initiative.
Changing Community Norms: Many Norristown youths view a high school diploma as an unachievable goal (28.5 percent of Norristown’s adult population has not completed high school). A primary emphasis of the Truancy Abatement Initiative is to change the community norms regarding school commitment and violence, as well as to increase the value of education. Strategies developed to change community norms have encompassed environmental, social-marketing, and community education/outreach.
There are many indicators of success that the NPD and its community partners review on a regular basis to determine the short-term and long-term effectiveness of their truancy intervention plan, with the primary goal of keeping students in school:
- Long- and short-term changes in attendance among students referred for intervention
- Improved average daily attendance rate in the schools the intervention subjects attend
- Timeliness of intervention and the effect on the student’s attendance
- Characteristics of the students whose attendance improved
- Extent to which teachers assess the factors that lead to attendance problems for a student
- Process measures, including the following:
Number of students brought to school
Number of parent contacts
Number of TEPs developed for any student having three or more unexcused absences
Number of behavior management sessions attended by students
Decreases in Uniform Crime Report Part I crimes
Decreases in daytime juvenile crimes
When comparing data from two equal time periods—March 2006, when the initial activities of the Truancy Abatement Initiative were undertaken, and March 2007, after full implementation—the NPD observed two significant outcomes attributed to the initiative and the related daytime curfew. Major crimes decreased by 10 percent, and arrests for major crimes decreased by 15 percent. When comparing annual figures for 2006 with those of 2007, the NPD reported an 11 percent decrease in major crimes and a 36 percent decrease in arrests for major crimes (as of December 2007). The decreases follow several years of a trend of increasing rates of Part I crimes.
In addition, the Truancy Abatement Initiative has achieved the following outcomes:
- Comparing marking period attendance records before and after court involvement, 55 percent of truant youths decreased their number of unexcused absences by greater than 25 percent.
- Of parent education and counseling participants, 89 percent increased their knowledge of the critical risk factors for youth violence, gang involvement, and truancy.
- Of the same group, 85 percent reported an increased ability to prevent or reduce youth at-risk behavior.
- The overall rate of unexcused absences for the NASD decreased by 27 percent from the 2005–2006 (55,136 absences) to the 2007–2008 (40,462 absences) school year.
A primary emphasis of this initiative has been on engaging the appropriate community partners to change the community norms related to school commitment and violence as well as increasing the value of education. In addition to providing direct services to high-risk youth and their families, the combined collaborative efforts aim to affect how business owners, parents, youths, and other community stakeholders reinforce school attendance and high school graduation rates.
This partnership reflects the tremendous impact communities can have with a collective, coordinated effort. The activities of the NPD Truancy Abatement Initiative can be replicated with diverse community partners willing to direct resources in a coordinated manner.
The Norristown Truancy Abatement Initiative is funded through support from the William Penn Foundation and Pennsylvania Weed and Seed.
For more information on this program, readers may contact Lieutenant McKeon via e-mail
at email@example.com. ■
1Myriam L. Baker, Jane Nady Sigmon, and M. Elaine Nugent, Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, NCJ 188947, September 2001, http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/188947.pdf (accessed June 16, 2008).