Truancy sweeps between the Wayne County sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices, the Michigan State Police, the United States Attorney’s Office and the Detroit police, operate on the premise of keeping kids safe and reducing youth crime. At best, this mobilization is a waste of valuable resources.
Everyone agrees that the development of healthy adolescents should be a community-wide concern worthy of a focused, coordinated effort among many coalition partners. But rounding up kids who skip school does virtually nothing to curtail the activities of hard-core, violent juvenile offenders. Law enforcement has enough to do without getting involved in matters that are best managed by parents.
Theoretically, the mission of the Operation Safe Passage Task Force is to get truant students back in the classroom. Those nabbed during the sweeps are mentored, assigned to community service or provided social service support if family issues keep them from attending classes. But on close examination, this extraordinary deployment in a city where cops are a premium is no cure-all for keeping kids in school and away from a life of crime.
While the strategy is questionable, the crisis is real. The crackdown is in response to an explosion of epidemic, violent and life-destroying teen behavior. Instead of respect for work and achievement, which requires the ability to delay gratification, short-term material gain is the predominant guiding value of the prevailing youth culture.
A thoughtful analysis of who skips or drops out — and why — could be helpful in developing a more cogent strategy to keep significant numbers of at-risk kids in school. Many lost interest in school and have written off learning as a life goal long ago. Others stay away because they are repeating one or more grades or failing; have low personal expectations or become involved in gangs. Often, attending class can be hazardous to their health when in-school violence and disciplinary problems can’t be controlled. Youngsters intent on selling drugs, stealing cars, killing, robbing and raping will not be deterred by a little positive reinforcement. And their deviant conduct does not occur in a vacuum.
The task force effort fails to recognize the role and responsibility of parents in connecting kids to schools and how that fundamentally begins at home. In the case of Detroit, the combination of parental neglect/ineffectiveness increasingly connects kids to crime. Key factors include the diminishing number of youths reared in two-parent households; widespread drug and alcohol use by parents and ineffective family management skills among young, single mothers who themselves never realized the value of education. These causes and consequences are often so imposing that parents discount their responsibility for the supervision of their children.
Increasing parental school involvement is touted as a panacea. But the only time the school district has been able to get parents involved in the education process is when they are moving their children into charter schools.
For years, policymakers have called for imposing sanctions on negligent parents, including prosecution. Elsewhere citations are handed out under old and new truancy and loitering ordinances. “Parental responsibility” laws hold parents legally liable. But should there be legal expectations for parenting? Should government be in the business of legislating what’s responsible? With so many dysfunctional homes, can government impose sanctions on all of them?
Government has no expertise in second-guessing parents’ child-rearing decisions. Neither do police know how to arrest parental irresponsibility. Cops are not social workers.
It would be preferable that all parents understood that controlling their children’s behavior is an obligation that is not negotiable. But even in the absence of parental control, law enforcement is obligated to protect society from escalating predatory crimes committed by unmanaged youth. And there’s where its exclusive focus should be.
In the end, the Detroit truancy tasks force is a desperate symbol of well-meaning people not knowing what to do.