It’s a normal Wednesday in Jersey City municipal court as the names of 26 truants are read before Judge Cynthia Jackson. Nearly half the cases are no-shows. “Warrant” is repeated over and over. But once a week, a long line of teens -- each with over a dozen unexcused absences -- are brought before the judge to face fines and explain their reasons for missing class.
There’s the 15-year-old girl whose family is from Honduras who hasn’t been to school yet this year. And the Pakistani teen who says he falls asleep in class because he’s bored and doesn't hear the teacher call roll.
Fifteen-year-old Joseph, whose mother is from Antigua and is standing beside him, has been skipping class and falling in with the wrong crowd. In June he was jumped at school as part of a gang initiation, which left him with a black eye and bruises. Joseph’s father was deported back to Saint Vincent and his older brother was arrested in connection with a shooting. So Joseph not showing up for class is the least of this family’s problems.
Judge Jackson gives Joseph some paper and sends him to another room to write about where he sees himself in five years. Janice, his mom, sits anxiously at the back of the court. “I have to go to work,” says Janice, a housekeeper. “I’m already late.” Twenty minutes later, Joseph emerges with his essay. It says his dream is to become a boxer.
The judge is exasperated. “You can be anything you want to be but you’re making bad choices,” she says. “At the end of the day, I can’t want more for you than you want for yourself.”
It’s the usual lecture from this judge and hundreds of judges across the country as the children of immigrant families – some documented and others not – are dragged into court for chronic absence. The reasons are as varied as the places they come from. Some are from countries where a teenager doesn’t normally attend school. Some are caught up in gang activity or fear falling prey to it at school. Some families – particularly in cities where police are working with immigration authorities – skip school when Immigration and Customs Enforcement is snooping around, or don’t even enroll their teenagers for fear they will be found out and sent back to where they came from.
But in many cases teenagers are simply teenagers behaving badly.
“These parents come here for a better life, but sometimes the kids don’t give a shit,” said David Ishibashi, executive director of the Youth Success Network, which works with chronically absent children in New Jersey. “These people risk their lives to come here.” But in many cases, he added, the problems immigrant teens face – poverty, trauma, illness and underperforming schools -- run much deeper than a bad attitude.
Chronic absenteeism plagues public education in general across the United States. The U.S. Department of Education recently reported that about one in seven students missed 15 days or more during the 2013-14 school year. Although these numbers are not broken down by race, ethnicity and class, experts say that the problem is especially acute in high-poverty schools, including those where many students take English as a second language. The stakes for these children are especially significant because school is often a gateway to American culture as well as career opportunities.
But because of the highly charged atmosphere surrounding immigration, hardly anyone wants to talk about the problem of truancy. Ishibashi was one of the few officials who would even agree to be quoted by name regarding the problem among immigrant families. Most school advocates and immigration experts interviewed by RealClearInvestigations would speak only on condition of anonymity.
Unless you happen to be in a local courthouse – criminal, juvenile or family court, depending on which state you’re in – on a certain day of the week, most people aren’t even aware of the truancy problem nationwide. Laws and regulations vary from state to state, as do the maximum ages of youths subject to them -- generally 16 to 18, though in some places, with a parent’s and court’s permission, a 15-year-old can opt out of high school. Penalties range from $250 fines to jail time, either for parents or, in some states, for the students themselves. Some states, like Florida, will revoke a teenager’s driver’s license or learner’s permit if chronic absence is a problem.
Even the undocumented have a right to attend school under a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, and under state laws they are required to attend. But deportation of undocumented truants is rare, since truancy officers and court judges often don’t ask families about their immigration status, focusing instead on enforcing attendance.
Joshua Childs, an educational policy professor at the University of Texas, started studying chronic absence in 2014 after riding a bus in Pittsburgh on his way to a meeting near a local courthouse.
“All these kids were on the bus with me in the middle of the day and got off at the same stop and I thought, ‘Where are all these kids going?’” They were all headed to truancy court. A light went on for Childs and he changed his specialty from failing school districts to chronic absence. “I hadn’t realized what a big problem it was,” he said.
In a soon-to-be-published study involving 5.1 million students across Texas, Childs and his co-author Aleksandra Malinowska found Latino migrant students have up to a 27 percent higher incidence rate of absenteeism and 82 percent higher odds of being chronically absent than the Latino non-migrant student population.
“No one wants to talk about it,” said Childs. “If you’re in the population you’re worried about someone outing you or your family. And people from the outside are worried about social media and a backlash. But we have to tackle things like race, class and gender. It’s not something you can just hope goes away. Maybe some people think immigration is just going to stop. But no.”
Childs said chronic absences put a strain not only on the court system but on the schools themselves. Classwork suffers when a student misses a high number of days and then finally returns, requiring time and resources to help the student catch up, further taxing typically already overtaxed staff. Also, attendance is attached to funding, “so when students are missing school it affects the allocation from the state,” Childs noted.
In November, UNESCO released a report that found children of undocumented parents had a much higher rate of internalizing problems like depression, anxiety, withdrawal, low self-esteem, or a need for attention – all of which were linked to high dropout rates and poor school performance. The report said 7 percent of children in the U.S. have been born to undocumented parents among the 11 million such immigrants living here.
When parents were asked, “What would you say are your three biggest goals right now for your children?” education was at the top of the list: 67 percent of immigrant parents surveyed said they want their children to do well in school.
But the report also found that fear of deportation is having a big impact on attendance. After a workplace raid in Morristown, Tenn., back in April, 20 percent of Latino students missed school county-wide. After an immigration raid in Las Cruces, N.M., last February, there was a 60 percent increase in truancy. As a result, the school board stopped allowing ICE to access school grounds without a warrant and stopped recording families’ immigration status.
Mayra Alvarez, who works with California’s immigrant community through the Children’s Partnership, said heightened activity by immigration officials is creating a perception among families that schools are not as safe for immigrants as they once were. According to UNESCO, California accounts for 27 percent of immigrants in the entire country, the largest share compared to all other states. Alvarez said schools there were once typically a trusted resource for distributing information to undocumented families and were at the top of the list for “safe havens” in immigrant surveys. But a recent study conducted in California shows that school ranked fourth on a list of such havens. Home and church were at the top. No. 3 was “I generally feel unsafe no matter where I am.”
Adding to the unsafe conditions at schools is gang-related activity among immigrant teens. John Ross, attendance supervisor for Jersey City’s public schools, had a case last year in which a 16-year-old was paralyzed from the waist down in a possible gang-related shooting. Once he recovered, the boy applied for home instruction. “It wasn’t because he was in a wheelchair,” said Ross. “Schools are wheelchair-accessible. But the kid was afraid to go back to school.”
He said gang-related truancy was involved in a very small percentage of Jersey City’s cases. But the area has its share of Latin Kings, as well as offshoots of MS-13 and the Bloods and Crips. Every now and then, Ross or a social worker will need a police escort to visit the home of a truant who belongs to a gang. One current case involves a 14-year-old who allegedly sells drugs and is involved with neighborhood gangs. Ross is trying to get the boy transferred to another school district to get him out of his neighborhood. “Because otherwise,” he said, “this kid is going to end up dead or in jail.”
Though gangs pose a danger to a small number of students, they’re just one in a long list of reasons not to show up for class. Migrant families, working in seasonal agricultural or fishing jobs, move from place to place, uprooting children from schools, said Childs.
Joanna Zorn Heilbrunn, co-director of the Colorado-based National Center for School Engagement, said some newly arrived families come from places where school is not a legal requirement. “For some of these families, they expect a 15- or 16-year-old to be working and contributing to the family,” said Heilbrunn. Fining them for working, said Childs, seems counter-productive.
In other cases, parents leave for work long before teens have to leave for school. “Kids are kids,” said Heilbrunn. “Given the opportunity to have fun, they might take it.”
“But these people want their children to be educated,” Heilbrunn said. “It’s very rare that these parents don’t care.” In some cases, undocumented parents don’t turn to anyone for help with their problem teens for fear of being deported. “There are all these systems in place to help these kids, but no one will ask for help,” she said.
Particularly in so-called 287(g) communities – cities and counties that work in tandem with federal immigration officials to catch undocumented residents – parents are wary of raising red flags. But more and more communities, pushing back against President Trump’s policies, have pulled out of the 287(g) program, the part of immigration law covering cooperation by local authorities.
Back in March, Hudson County voted to end its 287(g) status. Jersey City, part of Hudson, sits across the harbor from Ellis Island, and has been known as the golden door for immigrants since the 1800s. One of the most diverse cities in America, 75 different languages are spoken in schools there.
Cassandra Clinton, an attendance counselor in Jersey City, sometimes goes searching for chronically absent kids to find the families have fled due to visits by immigration authorities. Back in September, she paid a call to a family from Ecuador. “The landlady made a call on her cellphone while I was standing there and said the family had fled to Newark because immigration services had left a card in their mailbox,” said Clinton.
In response to the truancy crisis, some states like New Jersey and Texas have been pivoting from treating truancy as a crime to treating it with intervention. Childs said handling chronic absence that way is a new concept and has resulted in lower numbers in central Texas. It’s only been three years since Texas decriminalized truancy and stopped saddling kids with fines and possible jail time.
“We’re still defining chronic absence for people, so we haven’t thought of chronic absence of the immigrant population fully,” he said. Making people aware of the problem and getting the community involved is part of the solution, he said.
When Ross came on the job five years ago in Jersey City, he hired Clinton and two other new counselors to replace only one on staff who was on the verge of retirement. Two social service organizations were brought in. Coaches were put in place to work with teens, groups were formed to help them support each other and parents were counseled on how to deal with their troubled teens. The term “truant officer” was replaced with the softer, more sympathetic “attendance counselor.”
“There’s still not enough time in the day to handle the load,” said Ross. “Issuing a summons is the last tool in our toolbox. We’re working more on prevention. But you still have the 15-year-old where the parents do all they can do. They bring them to the front door of the school and they go out the back. Some kids are not listening.” But the new approach seems to be working in Jersey City and across the state.
In the 2014-15 school year, 136,000 (or 10 percent) of K-12 students in New Jersey were chronically absent. But last year the number fell slightly to 129,000, thanks in part to people like Ishibashi and Ross who are fighting its underlying causes.
In the case of young Joseph, the boy who wants to be a boxer and has been flirting with gangs, not having his deported father at home is a problem in disciplining him, said his mother. “They talk on the phone,” she said. “But he can’t do anything.”
Though others, like Clinton, can.
Clinton attended the same high school as Joseph and knows the dangers he faces. Though she, Ross and two other counselors are handling 187 family cases right now, she goes out of her way to address the problems each teen is fighting. And she feels there’s real hope for Joseph.
“This boy doesn’t have that little thuggish thing,” she said. “He’s not all the way out there yet.”
As soon as she heard Joseph wanted to pursue boxing, she contacted a man who runs a boxing ring near the school. He, too, was once a troubled teen. So she put the two of them together. “And he’s taken him under his wing,” said Clinton. “Now we’re just trying to find someone to help pay for his membership fees.”