Battle versus truancy stresses rewarding positive behavior

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Darryl Enriquez
November 21, 2010
— The best way to combat habitual truancy is to reward positive behavior rather than punish offenses, according to a proposal being considered by Walworth County and Delavan-Darien High School officials.

“Research suggests that, generally, incentives that encourage positive behavior are more effective than rules and sanctions. The use of stronger sanctions may actually increase truancy,” said David W. Thompson, deputy director of Walworth County Health and Human Services.

Thompson is heading a truancy abatement program that aims to help ninth-grade students.

It immediately will address class cutting and simple truancy. Sanctions will be tied to truant behavior, such as making up missed work, Thompson’s proposal states.

Thompson unveiled the proposed program at a recent meeting of the Walworth County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which expressed its support for the initiative.

The program is slated to be implemented in the 2011-12 school year. Final details will be developed by the truancy team by the end of February.

Delavan-Darien High School Principal Mark Schmitt said he agreed to let his school participate because he wants to uncover ways to lure habitual truants back to classrooms.

Schmitt said truancy comes from a variety of causes, but the most common are students lacking motivation to be in school and family issues disturbing education.

Problems can’t be resolved if troubled students aren’t in school, he said.

“The schools need to be places where students want to be,” Thompson said.

The program likely will stress individual counseling to dig out the root of truancy issues, Schmitt said.

“I have ideas,” Thompson said of the program’s structure, “but the specifics really should be the product of the collaborative team.”

In his written proposal, Thompson said the program should not include continuation of previously failed penalties.

Some of the program’s general principles will be:

n Rules that are fair and fairly enforced.

n Consequences that are enforced quickly and consistently.

n Recognition that sanctions that lead to increased absences are counterproductive.

Ninth-grade students will be targeted because they have the highest truancy rate, Thompson said.

“Their behavior (including truancy) in the ninth grade sets the pattern for the remainder of their high school years,” Thompson said.

The program also might reach out to eighth-graders to head off trouble before they enter high school.

The team would enlist popular people, such as sports figures and rock stars, to say how attending school improved their lives, Thompson said.

The presentations would be in multiple languages. About 35 percent of the high school students are Hispanic, and that group has truancy issues, too, Schmitt said.

The team, the police liaison officer and the municipal judge will work together to avoid legal sanctions for program participants.

If needed, off-school resources could be used for problem solving, vocational counseling, mentoring and development of social skills.

The effectiveness of the program will be analyzed in June of 2012 with a report submitted to the criminal justice council.

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