Student Absences Get Worse When Juvenile Justice Systems Step In: A Q&A With Josh Weber

The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently published a new report sharing their findings from a study of South Carolina’s probation system and probation’s negative effect on student attendance. I asked the report’s author, Josh Weber, a few questions about the goals of the study and what he thinks it means for schools. I also asked his thoughts about the impact of distance learning in light of the recent news about young people being referred to law enforcement for not attending online classes. 

What motivated the research behind this report? What were you hoping to better understand?

Nationwide, juvenile arrests and court referrals have declined substantially over the last decade, but referrals for truancy have remained largely stable and actually increased to over 60,000 in 2018. In addition, over 288,000 young people are placed on some form of probation every year, at least some of whom are placed under system supervision primarily due to concerns about their school attendance. Likewise, for almost all youth placed on probation, daily school attendance is a mandatory condition of their supervision, and youth can be incarcerated for their failure to comply. 

We conducted this study because we felt that most jurisdictions were not questioning whether the use of the juvenile justice system to intervene in youth’s education in these ways is an effective approach. We wanted to understand whether being placed on probation actually led to improvements in youth’s school attendance.   

What is the key takeaway for schools and educators? Is there something they should be doing differently?

Our research shows that youth who became involved in the juvenile justice system did not experience improved school attendance; in fact, their attendance declined during their first year of system supervision. This research adds to mounting evidence that shows that juvenile justice system involvement does more harm than good when it comes to youth’s school success.

In response, schools should make every effort to keep youth from coming into contact with the juvenile justice system, which includes limiting unnecessary suspensions and expulsions and establishing diversion programs — such as restorative justice — to resolve student behaviors in-house rather than involving the police or courts whenever possible.

When youth do come into contact with the justice system, research shows that youth’s connections to positive peers, adults, and pro-social activities can make a significant impact on reducing further delinquent behavior. Instead of instituting consequences like suspending or expelling youth who are arrested, requiring them to attend alternative schools, or restricting their involvement in extracurricular activities, schools should consider how they can ensure their most vulnerable students receive the services and supports they need to stay in school and out of trouble. 

Do you have any hypotheses about how COVID-19 might have changed the relationship between schools and public safety agencies in supporting student attendance? Do you think any of those changes will be permanent?

As a result of COVID-19, students, families, and educators are engaged in one of the most challenging school years in modern history, which includes grappling with how to monitor and manage student’s attendance and behavior. Even before the pandemic, the reasons behind youth’s school attendance challenges were individualized and complex, and they are even more so now. 

We hope that schools and juvenile justice systems will realize that punitive measures are likely to be ineffective at addressing the root causes of youth’s school engagement challenges and will begin to employ more individualized, developmentally appropriate, supportive approaches. If so, jurisdictions may come to find that these approaches are more effective, more consistent with the establishment of a positive school climate and culture that has benefits for all students, and thus, a strategy worth sustaining in future school years.  

You can read the full report here.