Statement of Dana Edwards, Case Manager, Public Safety Division, Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia
Before the Committee of the Whole, Honorable Chairman Phil Mendelson
Public Roundtable on Attendance, Chronic Absenteeism, and Truancy in the District
Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Good morning, Mr. Chairman. My name is Dana Edwards, and I work at the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) as a case manager with OAG’s Addressing Truancy Through Engagement and Negotiated Dialogue (ATTEND) program. Joining me today to help answer questions are my colleagues, Alicia Washington, the Assistant Deputy Attorney General for the Public Safety Division, and Dr. Dante Daniel, another case manager with ATTEND.
On behalf of OAG, thank you for convening this roundtable. When it comes to truancy and chronic absenteeism, the status quo is simply unacceptable. The District has long had a truancy and chronic absenteeism problem, and unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem worse. When children are truant, it is a sign that we are failing to set them up for success. That failure has serious impacts not only on those children’s futures, but also serious impacts on their families, schools, and communities. Indeed, District residents are urgently concerned about public safety and the opportunities that our government provides families and kids to succeed. As we know, truancy impacts children’s opportunity for success and public safety. Thus, if we are truly serious about caring for our children and improving public safety, we must make addressing truancy a key part of the city’s approach. And to tackle truancy, District agencies and community-based organizations must work together with urgency to implement innovative and effective solutions that address the underlying reasons that kids are not attending school. The sad fact is that this critical work has not been done.
Addressing The District’s Truancy Problem Is Urgent and Critically Important
Before I turn to discussing OAG’s efforts to combat truancy, I would like to briefly touch on the data regarding truancy in our city, as it points to a grim story of neglect.
Far too many District children are truant or chronically absent from school, and, as I mentioned, the problem has worsened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the 2018-2019 school year, the last school year prior to the pandemic, 31.2% of children in District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) were truant, meaning they had 10 or more unexcused absences. That is far too high. Yet, following the pandemic, that number has grown. During the 2021-2022 school year, an astounding 39.7% of DCPS students were truant. And 42.5% of students were chronically absent, meaning they missed 18 or more school days (whether for excused or unexcused reasons).
These numbers are alarming, to say the least. Truancy is an early warning sign that children, families, and communities are struggling and that they need support to ensure they are on a path to success. A robust body of research shows, for instance, that children who are truant are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, use substances, perform poorly at school, and be expelled and dropout. Research further shows that poor school attendance, poor school performance, and dropping out can have long-lasting adverse impacts on kids’ lives, including adverse effects on their long-term financial success and their likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system. These individual impacts have ripple effects on families, schools, and communities. Indeed, studies have demonstrated that communities with high rates of truancy experience greater crime and spend more resources on social services.
Research on truancy and data collected locally point to numerous risk factors at the individual, family, school, and community level that are associated with decreased school attendance and increased truancy. For instance, in OAG’s experience working with the parents and guardians of children who are truant, the parents and guardians cite varying obstacles to school attendance, including problems related to housing, transportation, employment, mental health, childcare, and clothing. Truancy, in other words, is often an indicator of a range of underlying needs that, if left unattended, will hurt children and public safety.
It is imperative that we, as a city, work together to tackle truancy by tackling its root causes.
OAG’s Work to Address Truancy
As you know, OAG has authority to prosecute truant children for delinquency and bring educational neglect cases and criminal charges against their parents or guardians. But prosecuting children or their parents long after children have started missing school is not a particularly effective means of improving attendance. Prosecution, moreover, does not solve the underlying reasons that children are missing school. And prosecution and involvement in the juvenile, criminal, and child welfare systems can have significant collateral consequences for children and their families. Under Attorney General Racine’s leadership, OAG has therefore shifted to using prosecution as a last resort, and OAG now looks for proactive approaches to reduce truancy—approaches that address the actual barriers that are causing kids to miss school.
As part of this effort, OAG has increasingly looked for opportunities to divert truancy cases referred for prosecution to alternative programs that provide kids and parents with the support they need to succeed. Now, when schools provide mandatory truancy referrals for fifteen or more unexcused absences, OAG refers eligible cases to the Department of Behavioral Health’s (DBH) High-Fidelity Wrap program or the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Alternatives to the Court Experience (ACE) Diversion Program. These diversion programs aim to provide children and their families with tailored support services to address the root causes of their non-attendance and avoid penetration into the justice system.
OAG has also created two truancy prevention and diversion programs. First, in 2017, OAG launched the I Belong HERE! Program at Sousa Middle School in Ward 7. The program aims to increase school spirit, provide students with incentives for attending school, and present monthly lessons led by OAG volunteers. Based on an early assessment of the needs of the school community, OAG also expanded the program to include providing food and clothing assistance, with the aim of improving attendance.
A year later, in 2018, OAG launched the ATTEND program as a district-wide diversion program for parents referred for criminal prosecution for failing to ensure daily attendance of their younger school-aged children. OAG partnered with D.C. Superior Court’s Multi Door Dispute Resolution Division to host mediations involving the parents and school personnel. During successful mediations, the parties identify barriers to attendance and negotiate written 90-day action plans to address those barriers. Afterwards, OAG assigns case managers, such as myself and Dr. Daniel, to provide intensive case management support to help resolve the identified barriers. This support typically includes connecting parents to appropriate community-based services. On occasion, we provide support beyond the 90-day period covered by the agreements.
In 2019, in partnership with DCPS, we also expanded the ATTEND program to include in-school prevention efforts. Now operating in six partner schools, the preventative component of ATTEND involves a multi-tiered approach to improving school attendance. First, ATTEND case managers assist with contacting the families of children who are listed as no shows at the beginning of the school year, to confirm that they are transferring schools or withdrawing from the school system. When initial attempts to contact the families are unsuccessful, OAG investigators attempt to locate the children and conduct wellness checks. Second, ATTEND hosts parent engagement workshops and quarterly events on topics that parents have identified as attendance barriers, such as employment and housing assistance. Third, OAG partners with other stakeholders to conduct mediations with the families of children referred at five or more unexcused absences. Fourth, OAG’s case managers work with the families post-mediation to address barriers to school attendance and connect them with appropriate community-based supports. Fifth, and finally, OAG recently began providing a small cohort of parents with the greatest needs with more intensive case management, including life coaching.
OAG is incredibly proud of the work it is doing in this space. It has helped to move the District away from an unsuccessful punitive approach to addressing truancy, to a more constructive one. Through the I Belong HERE! and ATTEND programs, OAG has focused on improving school climate and connecting families with services and supports, in order to help address the underlying reasons that children are not attending school. Compared to prosecution, these efforts have far greater long-term impacts on attendance, children’s success, reducing juvenile crime, and increasing public safety.
These programs do, indeed, appear to be having real, positive impacts. For instance, in the first six months after OAG launched the I Belong HERE! program at Sousa Middle School, the school saw a 75% reduction in truancy. Also of note, the program has generally met its goal of maintaining a 90% in-seat attendance rate for all but one participating classroom over the years.
As for ATTEND, in both the district-wide diversion component and the in-school prevention component, the parties have had tremendous success negotiating 90-day action plans; indeed, the parties have successfully negotiated agreements in all but two instances. We have also recently begun collecting data on truancy rates pre- and post-mediation at our Ward 8 partner schools with the aim of evaluating our impact, and although the sample size is small, the early data we have collected and analyzed has pointed to improvements in attendance post-mediation. We find this data extremely encouraging, and we look forward to continuing to collect additional data to evaluate the effectiveness of our efforts.
Of course, beyond the numbers, I could share numerous stories about how ATTEND’s work is having real and meaningful impacts on kids and families. To offer just one here, ATTEND assisted a mother with multiple children, ranging from toddler to teenager. During mediation, the mother identified housing, clothing, and childcare as barriers to consistent school attendance. The case manager focused on housing first because the family was sleeping on a family member’s couch. During the initial 90-day period, the case manager monitored daily attendance, provided transportation to and from appointments, provided clothes for the children, assisted with obtaining identification, provided referrals to food resources, provided assistance with the food stamp renewal process, and assisted the family in acquiring basic daily living items. The case manager resolved most issues with linkages to District agencies within the first 90 days and could have successfully closed the case. However, the case manager kept the matter open for an additional 90 days to support the mother and ensure the family followed through with relocation efforts. Overall, the children’s attendance improved, the family relocated, and the mother’s own outlook and wellness appeared to stabilize as her family life improved. This type of intensive support has put the children and the family in a much better position to succeed.
Over the last two years, OAG has been privileged to provide this kind of hands-on support to127 families and 188 children at our six partner schools. We know, however, from the staggering data on truancy that the need is much greater. With the Council’s support, OAG hopes to continue to expand its proactive efforts to combat truancy, including expanding its partnerships with schools under the ATTEND program. ATTEND’s model is simple: bring together parents, school personnel, and professional mediators to identify the reasons kids are missing school, craft a plan to fix the problem, and then provide the families with people who can help them execute the plan. The work is resource- and time-intensive, but its hands-on approach can make big impacts on the lives of District children and their families.
* * *
In closing, I want to thank you again for holding this roundtable. Reducing truancy and chronic absenteeism is imperative for the long-term health and well-being of District children, families, schools, and communities. What the research and our work makes clear is that truancy is a symptom of much greater needs. Families want to send their children to school. When children are truant, it is because their families are struggling. To address truancy, then, we must address the reasons families are struggling. OAG is working to identify and address the needs of the children and families we encounter. But, as a District, we must do much more to support at-risk families. Roundtables like this one provide much-needed opportunities for the Council, District agencies, and non-profit organizations to learn from one another about the work that is being done and to have productive dialogues about the work that must be done going forward.
Ms. Washington and Dr. Daniel and I are happy to answer any questions.
 District of Columbia Public Schools, Annual Truancy Report at 4 (Aug. 2019), available at: https://dcps.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcps/publication/attachments/Final-Attendance-Report-SY18-19.pdf.
 District of Columbia Public Schools, Annual Truancy Report at 7 (Aug. 2022), available at: https://dcps.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dcps/publication/attachments/Annual%20Attendance%20Report%20final_1.pdf.
 See id.
 See Brandy R. Maynard, Katherine Tyson McCrea, Terri D. Piggott, and Michael S. Kelly, Indicated Truancy Interventions: Effects on School Attendance among Chronic Truant Students 10, The Campbell Collaboration (2012) (hereafter Campbell Review).
 Campbell Review at 10; Julia Lara, Kenneth Noble, Stacey Pelika, Andy Coons, Chronic Absenteeism, National Education Association Research Brief (2018), available at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED595241.pdf.
 Campbell Review at 10.
 At the individual level, for instance, risk factors include low self-esteem, mental health concerns, and learning disabilities. See Campbell Review at 10. At the family level, lack of economic resources, housing instability, family conflict, and parenting practices are associated with truancy. See Campbell Review at 10; Van Eck et al., at 90. In the District, children who are SNAP/TANF eligible, in foster care, or experiencing homelessness are significantly more likely to be truant or chronically absent. Office of the State Superintendent for Education, District of Columbia Attendance Report: School Year 2020-21, at 32-33 (Nov. 30, 2021), available at: https://osse.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/osse/publication/attachments/2020-21%20Attendance%20Report_FINAL.pdf; see also A.M. Gomez and K. Roeder, D.C. Gets Federal Funds To Help Homeless Students. But Many Schools In Need Are Shortchanged, DCist (Nov. 16, 2022). At the school level, poor student-teacher relationships and negative school environments in which students experience threats to physical safety or bullying can also contribute to truancy. See Campbell Review at 10. Finally, at the community level, race, socioeconomic status, lack of employment opportunities, high levels of violence, and low levels of social support correlate with truancy. See Campbell Review at 11.
 Partner schools include Turner Elementary School, Malcolm X Elementary School, Patterson Elementary School, Simon Elementary School, John Hayden Johnson Middle School, and Sousa Middle School. OAG anticipates partnering with a seventh school during the 2022-2023 school year.