Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 10: The Habitual Truant and the Schoolroom Incorrigible

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Careful inquiry, then, seems to indicate that truancy, which may be defined as wilful absence on the part of the child without the knowledge and consent of the parent, is a relatively unimportant factor in non-attendance. The table given in the last chapter shows that only 5 per cent of the 1,129 non-attending children who were visited were truants, that is, children whose mothers had sent them to school and did not know of their failure to attend. Moreover, the problem of wilful truancy is almost exclusively a boy problem. Nine-tenths of the truants in one school and all the truants in the second school were boys. The official machinery provided by the Board of Education for the enforcement of the compulsory education law is devised to prevent non-attendance from any cause and not merely non-attendance caused by truancy. Although the agents of this department are called truant officers, they are sent to investigate any case of absence in which the principal suspects that the children either are needlessly being kept out of school or are wilfully staying away. The machinery as developed up to the present time is, however, better fitted to secure the return of the children than to remove the causes of their failure to attend. When these causes are stubborn, the law assumes that the child's continued non-attendance indicate- a, defiance of the law, either oil the part of the parent who continues to keep the child at home in spite of warning notices, or on the part of the child who still runs away even after the truant officer has tried to bring him back.


It has already been pointed out that the law provides for a prosecution of the defiant parent in the Municipal Court and the commitment of the habitually truant child to the Parental School through the Juvenile Court.[1] The theory of the law is that if the child will not go to school with the other children in his neighborhood he must be sent to a special school from which he cannot get away. Such children usually come from homes in which there is a breakdown of family discipline, and for this reason the discipline of the Parental School is substituted for the lack of control over the children in their own home. Obviously a breakdown of family discipline may manifest itself in relation to the school in more than one way. One child may, because of lack of home training, refuse to go to school at all, or may stay away so often as to make it impossible for him to benefit by the training when he is there. Another child, equally undisciplined and lawless, may go to school with fair regularity, but behave so badly that the school is of no benefit either to him or to the other children in the room. Such a child is said to be "guilty" of persistent violation of the rules of the school; and the law provides that those who are wilfully absent, and those who are wilfully disobedient, and those who seem to be in need of constant oversight shall alike be eligible to the Parental School, to which they may be committed by the juvenile Court on the initiative of the Department of Compulsory Education.

Although the problem of the child who is guilty of truancy or of bad conduct is relatively a small part of the problem of non-attendance, it is nevertheless absolutely a serious problem if the large numbers of boys brought to court on this charge are considered. The Parental School was opened on January 31, 1902, and between that date and the close of the school year

(150) 1914-15, 4,198 boys had been brought into the juvenile Court as truants and committed to the Parental School and 1,461 other truant children who were not committed were brought into the court for discipline. It was believed that a careful study of the records of the court and of the Parental School would lead to a better understanding of the problem of truancy as well as the related problem of non-attendance.

Table XII shows the number of children brought into court each year from the year 1902, when the Parental School was established, down to July 1, 1915.

Table XII Number of Children Brough into Juvenile Court as Truant or School-Room Incorrigibles
Year ending June 30 Boys Girls Total
1902 131 .... 131
1903 203 .... 203
1904 288 .... 288
1905 279 .... 279
1906 345 .... 345
1907 385 .... 385
1908 381 .... 381
1909 506 .... 506
1910 579 .... 579
1911 524 7 531
1912 443 4 447
1913 547 13 560
1914 496 3 499
1915 515 10 525
5,622 37 5,659

*The data in this table and in the other tables in this chapter were obtained by transcribing the Juvenile Court records of children brought in for truancy or violation of school rules. The report of the Board of Education contains each year a statement of the number of children brought into court off these charges and the number committed to the Parental School, and as these numbers do not correspond exactly with those in our tables, it should be explained that the differences, which are slight except for a single year (1914), are probably due to the difficulties attendant upon transcribing court records months or years after they are made. It was, however, necessary to make the transcription if other facts which are not published in the board's report were to be obtained. Our table shows a total Of 5,134 children brought into court between 1901-2 and 1913-14; a similar table compiled from the published reports shows a total Of 5,740 children-that is, our numbers are for some years slightly lower and for some years slightly higher than those published. Some difference may arise from the fact that we have included only "new cases" in our table-that is. a child brought into court in 1906, 1907, and 1908 would be counted only once (for the year 19.0) in our table, Whether the same method is used in compiling the published statistics it is not possible to say. For one year only 1914, is there a serious discrepancy between the two sets of figures. The published report shows 826 children brought to court and 424 committed; our tables give 499 brought to court and 346 committed during the same year. We are at a loss to explain so wide a difference, but it seems probable that "continuances" and "recommitments" are counted with "new cases" in making up the published total for that year, whereas our total refers only to the number of boys, not to the number of cases in court. Unless the method of compiling the published statistics was changed in 1914, it is difficult to understand why similar differences do not appear in earlier years.


This table obviously does not represent the total number of wilfully truant children in Chicago during these years, but only those extreme cases that could not be dealt with by the Department of Compulsory Education without the assistance of the juvenile Court and the Chicago Parental School. The increase in the number of boys brought to court was almost steady from year to year until 1910, and probably kept pace with the increase in the juvenile population of Chicago. This does not necessarily indicate that conditions were unchanged and that truancy was not being checked, but may be evidence of an improvement in the standard of school attendance required and in the resources for taking care of truant boys, such as the increase in the capacity of the Parental School and in the number of truant officers. It was, of course, almost useless to bring boys into court as truants when the accommodations at the Parental School were too limited to care for them even if the court wished to commit them. The slight falling off in the number of truants in 1905 was probably due to the general improvement in school attendance brought about by the compulsory education law which went into operation July 1, 1903. The more recent decline in the number committed may be due to the fact that some of those previously committed have been held for longer periods and that there are fewer vacancies at the school for new commitments.

Leaving the question of numbers, we consider next, in Table XIII, the ages of the children brought to court on the charge of truancy or "violation of rules" during the period 1902-15. The ages are given only for the whole group of

(152) children brought into court during this period, instead of being given for each year separately, because there seemed to be very little change from year to year in the proportion of children of different ages.

Table XIII Ages of Children Brought To Court As Truant or Schoolroom Incorrigibles, 1902-15
Age Number Percentage
7 years 54 1
8 years 164 3
9 years 469 8
10 years 865 15
11 years 1183 21
12 years 1500 27
13 years 1415 25
Total 5650* 100

*The total is 5,650 instead of 5,659 because the age was not reported in 9 cases.

This table shows that the great majority-nearly threefourths-of these unruly children were eleven, twelve, or thirteen years of age and 15 per cent were ten years old. Although only 12 per cent of the whole number were below the age of ten, this is a relatively large number of such very young children; the fact that nearly seven hundred boys who were only seven, eight, or nine years old were considered so seriously truant as to necessitate bringing them into court is very significant. It indicates, as do so many other facts, the close relationship between truancy and dependency. There is obviously something lacking in a home that cannot discipline a boy under ten years of age.

It is of course important to know not only the number of children brought into court as truants, but the number of boys committed to the Parental School. Table XIV shows the number of boys committed from 1902 to 1915. The table is

(153) given by years, because any change from year to year in the proportionate number of boys committed might indicate a change of policy with regard to the administration of the law. The children who were brought into court but not committed to the Parental School were usually paroled or their cases were continued to give the officers a chance to get more information or

Table XIV Number of Children Brought into Court and Number of Boys Committed to the Chicago Parental School, 1902-15
Year ending June 30 Children 
Brought into
Boys Committed
to Chicago
Parental School
1902 131 92 70
1903 203 161 79
1904 288 222 77
1905 279 212 16
1906 345 245 71
1907 385 265 69
1908 381 257 68
1909 506 374 74
1910 579 473 82
1911 531 395 74
1912 447 348 78
1913 560 411 73
1914 499 346 69
1915 525 397 76
Total 5,659 4,198 74

to give the child an opportunity to show improvement, or in order to have a new petition made out when the child could more properly be dealt with as a delinquent or a dependent. It should perhaps be explained that there have been a few girls among the truants brought into court, but that no girls have been committed, since the Parental School is exclusively for boys.[2]


The number of boys committed varied year by year from 68 per cent to 82 per cent of the total number of children brought into court. In general, it seems to be the policy of the Department of Compulsory Education not to bring boys into court until all other methods of getting them to school have proved futile. The department then has a "clear case" in court showing the need for Parental School care.

The Department of Compulsory Education takes pains to obtain if possible the consent of the parents to the child's commitment to the Parental School, before bringing the case into court. Although the consent of the parents is not recognized by the court as an essential preliminary to the child's commitment, [3] the policy of the department in asking the parents' consent is undoubtedly wise, since in the majority of cases the consent is given and, as a result, the action of the court is rendered doubly impressive through this co-operation of the parents and the school authorities for the child's good. An examination of the records for a single year showed that in nearly two-thirds of the cases in which the parents' attitude was given, they consented to the child's being sent to the Parental School.

In the beginning, the activities of the Department of Compulsory Education were confined almost exclusively to the public schools, but in the year 1907-8, the services of the department were extended to all local schools[4] including not Only 252 public schools, but 142 Catholic parochial schools, 35 Lutheran parochial schools, and 6 other private schools which existed at that time. Before this date, public and parochial schools alike were imposed upon by parents who sought deliberately to mislead the school authorities and to evade the law by transferring

(155) children from one school to another. Such evasions of the law were not so easy after the parochial schools were brought under the supervision of the Department of Compulsory Education. Table XV shows the number of children brought to court each year from the public and from the parochial schools. From this table it is seen that although even in the early years a few boys had been brought in from the parochial schools, the proportion of boys from these schools increased very substantially after the year 19o8, when the services of the truant officers were extended to parochial school children.

Table XV Showing the Number of Children from Public and from Parochial Schools Brought into Court as Truants each Year from 1902 to 1915
Year ending June 30 Number of Truants from Totals
Public Schools Parochial Schools
1902 126 5 131
1903 198 5 203
1904 281 7 288
1905 263 16 279
1906 334 11 345
1907 367 18 385
1908 358 23 381
1909 432 74 506
1910 469 110 579
1911 420 111 531
1912 367 80 447
1913 459 101 560
1914 384 115 499
1915 430 95 525
     Total 4,888 771 5,659

It is important to note that although all these children were brought into court on a charge of truancy and were all called truants, they were technically charged either with (I) habitual

(156) truancy, or (2) violation of school rules, or (3) both offenses. Table XVI shows the number of boys brought in on different charges and committed to the Parental School during the years from 1908 to 1915, the years for which data were available. It appears that during a period of eight years 79 per cent of the boys brought into court by the Department of Compulsory Education and committed to the Chicago Parental School were brought in on a straight charge of truancy, 17 per cent were charged with disorderly conduct at school, that is, "violation of the rules," and the remaining 4 per cent were charged with the double offense of truancy and violation of rules.

Table XVI Number of Boys Charged with Habitual Truancy and "Violation of Rules" Committed to the Parental School, 1908-15
Year ending June 30 Habitual Truancy Violation of Rules Both Charges Total
1908 194 48 15 257
1909 308 58 8 374
1910 389 48 36 473
1911 322 50 23 395
1912 258 73 17 348
1913 321 79 11 411
1914 272 66 8 346
1915 318 73 6 397
    Total 2,382 495 124 3,001
    Percentage 79 17 4 100

The question of the disposition of the truants and "school-room incorrigibles " Who were brought into court is decided by the judge of the Juvenile Court on the same basis on which lie determines the disposition of the cases of delinquent and dependent children. Children are not committed to institutions for punishment, but because no better method of dealing with them is at hand. The persistently truant or extremely incorrigible boy

(157) who comes from a good home, and who has parents able to devote time and effort to getting him to school, is likely to be returned to his home, while another boy whose offense has been much less grave may be sent to the Parental School if home conditions are less favorable.

It is a matter of considerable importance that so many boys who seemed to be in rebellion, as it were, against the school system provided for them by the community could be dealt with only by bringing them into court. An attempt was made, therefore, to ascertain the causes of their unwillingness to go to school and of their serious misbehavior while there, and, if possible, how far the home was responsible, or the school, or the community.

In the hope of throwing some light on these questions, a more thorough study of all the truancy cases brought into court during a single year was undertaken. Such facts as could be obtained from the court records were transcribed for the 579 truant boys of the year 1910, and these facts were supplemented by such other data as could be obtained from the Parental School records. Later the principals of the schools from which the boys had come and the truant officers who brought them into court were interviewed, and, finally, their homes were visited and an effort was made to discuss sympathetically with the mother of each boy his conduct before and after his commitment. As a result of the visits to the homes valuable information was obtained relating to the families of these boys. Home conditions are probably the factor of first importance in the problem of truancy. Neglect in the home due to poverty, the death of the father, invalidism of the mother when there arc a large number of small children, will almost inevitably have a disastrous effect upon the school attendance of the children.

It was pointed out in a preceding chapter that while it is not easy to determine on the basis of a single visit to the home, the

(158) condition of the family with respect to poverty or comfort, nevertheless sufficient information can be obtained to make possible the classification of the families into economic groups.[5] Table XVII shows the number and the percentage of boys who

Table XVII Economic Status of Homes of 368 Parental School Boys
Economic Group Number Percentage
Very poor 159 43
Poor 136 37
Comfortable 65 18
Very Comfortable 8 2
     Total 368 100

came from the different kinds of homes. It shows also that of the 368 boys whose homes were visited, the largest number in any one group, 43 per cent, were from "very poor" homes and that 80 per cent of the boys were in the two lowest groups of "poor" and "very poor" families. Poverty is not necessarily the cause of truancy, for truancy and poverty alike may be due to one and the same cause-drink or incompetence, for example -but truancy has, nevertheless, a very clear relation to poverty. A very considerable number of these " truant " families were on the books of one or more of the charitable organizations of the city. The number that obtained public outdoor relief through the county agent's office could not be ascertained, but inquiries made at the "confidential exchange" showed that 117 Out Of the 368 families of truant boys were being assisted by different social agencies, chiefly, of course, by the United Charities.

It is almost unnecessary to point out that the families that furnish the truant candidates for the Parental School are not

(159) only poor but foreign, and that many of these boys are the children of immigrant parents who have never learned to speak English and who are obviously unable to understand our educational methods and policy. These truants and incorrigibles also suffer from the fact that their homes are broken as well as poor and foreign. A very considerable number of truant boys were the children of widowed or deserted mothers; some were motherless or wholly orphaned. Table XVIII shows the num-

Table XVIII Parental Status of Truant Children
Parental Condition Number Percentage
Father dead 680 17
Mother dead 341 9
Both parents dead 78 2
Separated or divorced 35 1
Father deserted 121 3
Mother deserted 30 1
One or both parents insane 16 *
Father or mother blind or crippled 6 *
Families in abnormal condition 1,307 33
Families apparently normal 2,683 67
Total number of families† 3,990 100

* Less than 1 per cent.
† Parental condition was not reported in 38 cases.

-ber of children who came from homes of this kind during the eight-year period for which data were available. According to this table 67 per cent of the boys came from homes that were apparently normal in that they, had both parent. living, and 33 per cent, a very large proportion, were from homes broken by death, desertion, or some similar calamity.[6] In 20 per cent

(160) of the cases the boy was the child of a widowed or deserted mother, who was obliged to work in order to keep her home and children together.

It seems clear that the working mother is an important factor in promoting truancy. For example, Out Of 368 boys whose homes were visited, 122, or 33 per cent, had working mothers. The occupations of these women were mostly unskilled and underpaid. They were chiefly washwomen, scrubwomen, and seamstresses, but some were waitresses and midwives, a few sold newspapers on the street, and others worked in factories. In many cases their work was irregular. Either they were out of work entirely at times, or they worked only two or three days in the week. The significant thing is that so many of these women who try to be wage-earners and at the same time mothers and home-makers for a large family of children fail in both occupations. The mother is obliged to neglect both her home and her children, and truancy is one of the first symptoms of serious neglect.

It should not, however, be overlooked that a few of these boys came from comfortable homes. Table XVII showed 18 per cent from fairly comfortable and 2 per cent from unquestionably comfortable homes. Although small numerically, this group of boys presents a most troublesome problem. It is probably true that the cases of children from fairly well-to-do but undisciplined homes are the most difficult of treatment. Such homes are not degraded, and there is no obviously demoralizing condition on which an appeal to the juvenile Court might be based; they are not homes in receipt of charitable relief and so they are not subject to the authority and control to which some weaker families ate subjected.

For example, in one such "comfortable" home a truant boy, who had been greatly indulged, was allowed to sell papers on the street until he became demoralized. The mother excused him, saying "he did not like to go to school but liked to

(161) sell papers and to make his pennies," although she said that he did not need to earn money. The principal, of course, said that the mother spoiled him by letting him stay away from school.

In another "comfortable" home, a well-furnished but extremely disorderly six-room apartment, where there were four children, the father was a man of good habits, an engineer, earning very good wages but working at night, so that the children saw very little of him. The mother, who had been married at seventeen, was incompetent and unable to control the children, even when they were quite small. The father, who was Catholic, and the mother, who was Protestant, quarreled a great deal. They were alternately very severe and very indulgent with the children, and there was a general lack of discipline in the home. When the two boys were nine and seven years old, they were both brought into court for habitual truancy and sent to the Parental School.

A careful study of the home conditions from which the Parental School boys came showed many similar cases of comfortable but "slack" homes, of indifferent fathers and of weak, easy-going, indolent mothers. Sometimes the fact that there is a large family of children gives the mother an excuse for neglecting some of them, but unfortunately those neglected are the ones in need of special care.

One boy, who was sent to the Parental School when he was only nine years old, belonged to a family of nine children. The mother complained that she could not control him and wished to have him committed. She said that he had begun smoking cigarettes when he was only six years old and the habit had been growing on him steadily, that he stayed out late at night, and was quite beyond her control. After four months at the Parental School the boy was paroled, but in six months he was returned again. The second time he remained eight months, and he told the investigator who called at his home during his second parole that he would be glad to go back again.

(162) Occasionally also there are cases of unreasonable and hysterical parents who are constantly interfering with the school rules and the regulations. In one family in which there were ten children, all of whom had had trouble at school because of the mother's constant interferences, one boy found it easier and pleasanter to play truant than to be the occasion of persistent wrangling. It became necessary to commit him to the Parental School as a habitual truant, although he came from a comfortable home and had well-meaning and seemingly intelligent parents.

In another family two boys from a good home gave a great deal of trouble at school because they were encouraged by their parents in a defiant attitude toward any attempt to discipline them. The younger boy was finally sent to the Parental School for violation of the rules and for truancy, and the mother was so indignant at the attempt to discipline her boy that she moved out of the neighborhood. The boy spent two months at the Parental School, and, although the mother disapproved very strongly of the boy's commitment, she told the investigator who questioned her that after frequent visits to the school she came to think highly of it and she felt sure that it had had a most beneficial effect upon her son.

Lack of discipline was found to be especially common in cases in which the mother was ill or the parents were dead or divorced and the children living with relatives. One boy's grandmother, for example, had always spoiled him by giving him pennies for cigarettes and refusing to co-operate with the teachers. In another case the parents were divorced and the ten-year-old boy, who was in the second grade, was brought into court as a habitual truant. He had attended at least six different schools, public and private, and was charged With habitual truancy, incorrigibility, and stealing. It appeared that his parents were divorced, that his mother had remarried, that the boy had lived for years with his grandmother and had

(163) then divided his time between five aunts, two uncles, his stepfather's home, and his father's boarding place. After he had been five months at the Parental School, he was paroled to live with his mother, but within a week jumped from a second-story window at midnight and ran away to an aunt who was glad to harbor him until he was returned to the Parental School for violating his parole. After another term there, he was again paroled to his mother, but soon ran away to his father, who was very indulgent and liked to have him around, although the father's boarding place was in a most disreputable neighborhood and was an entirely unfit place for a boy.

Attention has been called to the fact that these children who offend against the rules of the school or refuse to attend the school sessions are brought before the same court that deals with delinquent and dependent children under the juvenile court law. In a later chapter[7] attention is called to the cases of truant children who had already been before the court, either as delinquent or dependent. But the cases cited here indicate that many of the truants and schoolroom incorrigibles share with the other two groups their essential characteristics, namely "lack of proper parental care."[8] The truant child may not have become technically delinquent, the home may not yet have

(164) reached the stage of unfitness which renders it imperative for the child to be placed under court guardianship as dependent. Later he may become delinquent or dependent, but for the time being he remains under the educational authorities. Any social agency that can discover the conditions hostile to child life and that has the power to deal with them for the safeguarding of the child and the upbuilding of the home has an unparalleled opportunity for social usefulness. Some of the machinery that has been devised in Chicago for dealing both with truant children and with indifferent or defiant parents will be described in the next two chapters.


  1. See chap. v, p. 86. See also chap. xi, "The Parental School," and chap. xiv, " Enforcement of the Compulsory Education Law in the Municipal Court of Chicago."
  2. See chap. xiv, "Enforcement of the Compulsory Education Law in the Municipal Court of Chicago," for a further discussion of the problem of the truant girl.
  3. On the legal effect of the parents' refusal to consent to commitment. see chap. i, p. 9.
  4. Fifty-fourth Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago (1907-8), p. 282.
  5. See chap. ix, "Non-Attendance at the Source," p. 124, for a discussion of the method of classification.
  6. It is of interest that data for the year 1909-10, when information was secured from records of private agencies to supplement court records, show an even larger proportion of broken homes.
  7. See chap. xiii, "Truancy in Relation to Dependency and Delinquency."
  8. See Illinois Revised Statutes, chap. 23, sec. 16q, in which the following definitions are found:
    "For the purpose of this act, the words 'dependent child' and 'neglected child' shall mean any male child who while under the age of seventeen years or any female child who while under the age of eighteen years, for any reason, is destitute, homeless or abandoned; or dependent upon the public for support; or has not proper parental care or guardianship; or habitually begs or receives alms; or is found living in any house of ill-fame or with any vicious or disreputable person; or has a home which by reason of neglect, cruelty or depravity, on the part of its parents, guardian or any other person in whose care it may be, is an unfit place for such a child; and any child who while under the age of ten years is found begging, peddling or selling any articles or singing or playing any musical instrument for gain upon the street or giving any public entertainments or accompanies or is used in aid of any person so doing.
    "The words 'delinquent child' shall mean any male child who while under the age of seventeen years or any female child who while under the age of eighteen years, violates any law of this State; or is incorrigible, or knowingly associates with thieves, vicious or immoral persons; or without just cause and without that [the] consent of its parents, guardian or custodian absents itself from its home or place of abode, or is growing up in idleness or crime; or knowingly frequents a house of ill-repute; or knowingly frequents any policy shop or place where any gaming device is operated; or frequents any saloon or dram shop where intoxicating liquors are sold; or patronizes or visits any public pool room or bucket shop; or wanders about the streets in the night time without being on any lawful business or lawful occupations; or habitually wanders about any railroad yards or tracks or jumps or attempts to jump onto [any] moving train; or enters any car or engine without lawful authority; or uses vile, obscene, vulgar, profane or indecent language in [any] public place or about any school house; or is guilty of indecent or lascivious conduct; any child committing any of these acts herein mentioned shall be deemed a delinquent child and shall be cared for as such in the manner hereinafter provided."

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