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  October 28, 2002

Garey Researching Effectiveness of
Team Approach to Truancy Reduction
By Sherry Fisher

Anita Garey has been spending a lot of time before a judge lately, but she's not in trouble. Her research has taken her to truancy court.

Image: Anita Garey
Anita Garey, associate professor of family studies and sociology, is one of the year's Humanities Institute fellows

Photo by Dollie Harvey

Garey, an associate professor of family studies and sociology, is conducting research on the team approach to truancy reduction. She is doing observational research in three truancy courts in Rhode Island.

The truancy court program, an arm of the state family court, is an intervention aimed at reducing school absence, preventing youngsters from dropping out of school, and improving each child's opportunity for academic achievement. The courts, located in middle schools, are set up much like real courtrooms.

"The truancy court team works together to discover and address the underlying causes of truancy in each individual case," says Garey, who was awarded a UConn Humanities Institute Fellowship for the current academic year to pursue her study of truancy.

According to Garey, in most states truancy is dealt with in a punitive manner that has not proven effective in increasing school attendance.

In Rhode Island, each week, a magistrate, wearing the traditional black robe, meets with youngsters and their parents. Also present are a truant officer, who reports on absences or tardiness, and a guidance counselor, who reports on academic progress and behavior. Sometimes social workers or other family counselors are present. Each child is monitored throughout the school year. If the child gets back on track, meetings may be reduced.

Garey and her research assistant Marina O'Leary, a doctoral student in family studies, take detailed field notes in the 'courtroom' on the interactions among the participants.

Most youngsters choose truancy court over family court, where they could receive a sentence, be put on probation, and have the charge recorded on their records.

While there is much research on truancy itself, little research has been done on intervention processes, such as truancy court.

"Truancy has been well studied in terms of its association with other delinquent or criminal behavior 'down the road'," Garey says. "It's a predictor of drug abuse, criminal activity, and other social problems. As I sit in the courtroom, I see that it is also a sign of things that are going on in a particular child's life that have brought the child to the point where he or she is missing a lot of school."

For one youngster, it was a matter of getting glasses. Another was ordered by the magistrate to be tested for a learning disability.

One of the goals of Garey's research is to find out what works in the team process and what doesn't.

"In truancy court, everyone on board has a stake in the problem - the schools, the legal system, guidance counselors, families, and social services," she says. "They are looking at the same situation and talking to each other. That sounds great and probably is in many ways. But I'm also interested in what ways it doesn't work."

Garey is studying 150 cases. Her presence at the sessions allows her to see first-hand how the team approach works. "I'm getting a sense of when the team members work well together, and what the issues are when they don't," she says.

A truant officer, for example, who may have dealt with a child on many occasions, might have a different picture of the child than a magistrate who is questioning the child for the first time, she says.

Garey says her research has been like peeling an onion: "Each week when a child and parent come in, you get a little more information about what's going on, you get a little deeper into the situation. Sometimes there isn't very far to go, but a lot of the time there's a long way to go. There are many issues going on and they don't come to the surface right away."

School failure can lead to truancy, she says: "They're just not doing well in school; they don't understand something and feel like they're drowning. They need help in taking advantage of school resources or being put in the right class."

Some youngsters don't attend school because they're too tired to get up. "Children are staying up very late using the Internet," she says. "I've seen a magistrate confiscate a computer."

For some children, a disorganized home life with multiple moves may be part of the problem. Another child may skip school because of bullying.

What is most important about truancy court, says Garey, is that it offers an intervention: "Having more people looking at the whole picture can help."

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