By Michael Shank and Allyson Mitchell

With DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s call this month for educational equity across the District’s divide, there is a great opportunity to address one driver of this inequity: the high school truancy and chronic absenteeism, especially for students who attend schools east of the Anacostia River.

The trends are alarming. At 66 percent, the majority of Anacostia High School students have missed over 25 days of school. In fact, the average number of unexcused absences at Anacostia is 47 days. Throughout the entire District of Columbia, the numbers are devastating, according to the Urban Institute: over 2,500 of DC’s high school students are chronically truant, a trend that starts in middle school. That’s 20 percent of the District’s youth. It’s especially high at Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn and Roosevelt high schools, where on average 40 percent of students missed at least a month of school last year because of unexcused absences. Compare this with rates of 16 percent in Los Angeles and 13 percent in Chicago.

So, why aren’t the District’s youth attending school? The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention claims that absenteeism is related to school climate and school safety, both of which affect student achievement and self-esteem. If this is the paramount issue, then, for Anacostia High School, one might think that their newly renovated facilities should provide sufficient self-esteem and motivation necessary for achievement. The $62 million renovation brought in many new meritorious additions, including a new science computer and lab, a new library, a child care center, a health and dental clinic, and much else. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry Jr. all cheered the much-needed improvements. And yet, among all of DC’s Public Schools, Anacostia still has the highest truancy rates, a trend which will only exacerbate the District’s growing inequality that Henderson is keen to close. If we want to close these gaps, it starts here.

Rather than a reactive approach, like ticketing parents for truancy as cities in California and Florida have tried, let’s look at what stands in the way of a safe space for learning. According to the Urban Institute’s latest report, it appears truancy rates parallel with poverty rates, neighborhood crime, and the high percentages of single-mothers without high school degrees. To make matters worse, schools often have insufficient supply of school counselors to deal with a student population traumatized by violence, abuse, and poverty, and are ill-equipped with the staff resources necessary to mediate conflict or violence when it rears its ugly head, which is often. DC Public Schools’ peer mediation program is nascent, for example, and the youth rehabilitation services are often criticized for recidivism.

DC Public Schools is trying to change these trends, considering bringing organizations like ACCESS Youth into several high-truancy schools next month to provide the tools, resources, and space needed to help students find different ways of dealing with disconcerting emotions and violent behavior.

ACCESS Youth is already helping the Metropolitan Police Department cope with an influx of youth arrested for simple assault, destruction of property, inciting violence and fighting. These are juvenile boys and girls, some as young as nine or ten years old. It starts young. And there are hundreds of cases referred to ACCESS Youth. Whether it’s Facebook drama that leads to full blown group fighting, perceived disrespect that leads to an assault charge, or something as simple as hair pulling that leads to an arrest, students are choosing violence as their preferred response to conflict. And whether it’s inspired by society’s tendency to respond violently to conflict, malnutrition that provokes mood swings and attention deficit, or dysfunctional and defensive communication styles adopted within Facebook, texting, and Twitter mediums, it’s a problem in need of a nonviolent solution.

Roughly 80 percent of the cases that the Metropolitan Police Department refers to ACCESS are school fights that result not only in arrest but also suspension and, in some instances, expulsion. Through referral, and instead of being institutionalized, youth have an opportunity to reform their ways and move forward without a tarnished record. The students talk through the incident with trained mediators and, in most cases, have an opportunity to apologize to the victim and make amends with the community. The offender’s “punishment” is usually a combination of community service, anger management and life skills training, and a self-reflective written agreement to alter their behavior. The offender is heavily monitored, with follow-up meetings 30, 60, 90 and 180 days after the initial mediation. This ensures that the commitment is met and that the kids are being held accountable for their behavioral change.

This MPD-ACCESS partnership and alternative approach is so effective that the recidivism rate in this program is less than 2 percent, compared with the national mediation recidivism rate of 25 percent. The problem is that ACCESS (and likely similar programs run through the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services), is chronically underfunded. While this organization is producing great results, assembling the necessary scale-up to accommodate the needs of several high-truancy schools is a daunting undertaking.

What’s the answer, then, more volunteers? At present, that’s the only way organizations like ACCESS can expand conflict mediation programs in the schools and victim-offender reconciliation efforts outside the schools. The only upshot of relying on a nearly all-volunteer effort is that the offending youth may be more inclined to change their ways when they see their community voluntarily spending hours upon hours in support of their case, and in turn, their wellbeing.

This is no long-term fix, however, although it might help lower the truancy rates locally. A much bigger commitment is required. Any talk of education reform, or educational equity, must be willing to tackle more chronic concerns: from eradicating poverty to improving health to modeling nonviolent alternatives. That’s where the answers lie. And until we tackle that, we’ll continue to see more students throwing punches, hooking school, and dropping out.

If we want Anacostia’s ninth and tenth-graders to be “so well-educated, they’ll be the best educated in the world,” as Mayor Gray envisioned at Anacostia High School’s renovation ribbon-cutting, we’ve got a lot more to reform and restore. When it comes to truancy, it is much less about getting the lights working in the classroom and much more about getting along outside of it.

By Michael Shank and Allyson Mitchell