Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 12: Truancy and Non-Attendance in Relation to Mental and Physical Defects of School Children

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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Because a certain minimum of education is essential, the school authorities are required to secure the attendance of all the children within the age limits fixed by the statute. Progressive school authorities, however, go beyond this and undertake to do whatever must be done not only to secure the attendance of the child, but to see that he is in condition to profit by his work when he is there. The underlying principle here is that of prevention-the prevention of physical, mental, and moral weakness or deterioration-the prevention, in the case of the problem under discussion, of truancy and non-attendance rather than the application of disciplinary methods to these problems. An illustration of such preventive work is to be found in the development of the school medical and nursing services.

The volume of absence due to sickness, preventable or inevitable, is of course very great. The lowering of the vitality and capacity of the children by physical and nervous defects is also symptomatic of serious educational loss. In the year 1909, for example, the Chicago Health Department examined 647,842 school children for the prevention of the spread of contagious diseases. As a result of this examination it was found necessary to exclude 15,6 18 children from school as a preventive measure against the spread of contagion. Moreover, 123,897 children were given complete physical examinations and of these, 63,199, or in round numbers more than 50 per cent, were found to have such physical defects as defective teeth, 44,483; bad tonsils, 27,556; impaired vision, 21,824;

(178) anaemia, 3,606; poor nutrition, 2,983; skin diseases, 2,593; impaired hearing, 2,830; and orthopedic defects, 1,433.[1]

More recently, during the year 1915, the Chicago Health Department made 1,128,232 inspections of school children beside 79,383 physical examinations. As a result of the inspections 21,730 children were excluded from school; as a result of the physical examinations 37,356 children, or again nearly 50 per cent, were found to suffer from physical defects, and 3 2,360 cases were referred to the school nurses. They, in turn, made 1,316 calls at the homes, and took or sent more than twenty thousand children to dispensaries or other agencies for treatment.[2] The social waste that has been prevented through the installation of the school medical and nursing service is incalculable and there is every reason to hope for the further development of these important social agencies.

No adequate discussion of the subject of medical inspection and of the school nursing service can be undertaken here. The importance of medical inspection not only for the purpose of preventing epidemics, but for the purpose of discovering physical defects that may be removed or lessened, is generally recognized and is the subject of an extensive and rapidly increasing body of literature.[3] The importance of medical examination of those who leave school to go to work, in order that a minimum of

(179) physical development may be assured, hardly needs emphasis. The working child, however, is discussed in a later chapter.

When the numbers of defective and sick children are so great, it is easy to think only of the loss of school opportunity

Connected with physical incapacity. In the very volume of the inevitable loss, however, is to be found the reason for reducing to a minimum the preventable absences. That sickness is responsible for a very great deal of non-attendance is well known, and further information on this point was contributed recently by the Chicago Health Department. A study of school absentees was made by the Health Department in the winter of 1915-16 during the prevalence of an epidemic of grip, when there was likewise danger from scarlet fever. During the four days preceding the Christmas, 1915, recess, 6,407 calls were made at the homes of absent children and the causes of their absence are grouped in Table XXII.

Table XXII Percentage Distribution of Causes of Absence
(Compiled From Bulletin of Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction, February 5, 1916, P. 29.
Absent because of illness 61
"Respiratory disease" 47
"Other severe condition" 3
"Vaccination" 2
"Contagious disease" 4
"Indisposition" 5
Absence for miscellaneous causes 39
     Total 100


According to this table, the Health Department nurses found the absence of 61 per cent of the children due to illness. The remaining 39 per cent were absent for various causes, such as "no clothing ... .. truancy," or because the nurse reported "wrong address," or "not at home."

It seems scarcely necessary to develop arguments in favor of the support of an adequate medical and nursing staff. When millions of dollars are being spent each year on educational facilities, it is of course an elementary economy to prevent the waste of these facilities through preventable absences or because the children who attend are not in fit condition to take advantage of the opportunities offered them.

The importance of discovering mental defects by prompt and adequate examination and of securing proper methods of instruction for mentally deficient children is another aspect of the prevention of social waste that cannot be treated in this volume.[4] In this connection, however, some facts relating to the relation between truancy and retardation[5] taken from the records of the truant boys brought into the juvenile Court become of interest. It is generally agreed that absence, whether preventable or not, because it disturbs the child's relation to his school work, leads often to truancy, as well as to retardation.

(181) In studying the juvenile Court records of truant boys in Chicago it was possible to compare the ages and the grades of the boys brought into court, and Table XXIII has therefore been prepared showing the ages of the boys brought in during the two years 1909-10 and 1910-11, together with the grades last attended. A comparison between the ages and the grades in this table makes it possible, of course, to ascertain how far these boys were making normal progress in school.

Table XXIII Age and Grade of Truant Boys Brought Into Court Between July 1, 1909 and June 30, 1911*
Age Subnormal rooms Grade Total
1st 2d 3d 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th
7 years .... 3 2 .... .... .... .... .... .... 5
8 years .... 13 22 4 .... .... .... .... .... 39
9 years .... 15 26 37 6 1 .... .... .... 85
10 years .... 11 33 62 33 12 .... .... .... 151
11 years 2 9 23 64 75 36 7 1 .... 217
12 years 3 13 24 56 97 89 30 7 .... 319
13 years 1 6 8 45 69 70 53 19 3 274
14 years .... .... .... .... .... 1 .... .... 1 2
Total 6 70 138 268 280 209 90 27 4 1,092

*Data from court records. These are boys brought into court for the first time as truants. They may have been in before as delinquents or dependents. The total number of cases in the table is 1,092 instead of 1,110, because the records, although giving the ages failed to give the grades in eighteen cases.

The table shows that although only 6 of these boys had been placed in the subnormal or ungraded rooms, the great majority were not so far advanced in school as normal children who had attended school regularly should have been. A normal child who entered school at the age of seven, as required by the 

(182) compulsory education law, would have passed out of the first grade and into the second at the age of eight; he would have been in the third grade at nine, the fourth grade at ten, and so on. In Table XXIII, showing age and grade, the heavy zigzag line divides the boys making reasonable progress in school from those who are below the standard demanded of normal boys at the corresponding ages. All the numbers below the heavy black line represent retarded children, 67 boys from eight to thirteen years of age still in the first grade, 114 boys from nine to thirteen still in the second grade, 227 boys from ten to thirteen still in the third grade, 241 boys from eleven to thirteen still in the fourth grade, 16o twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys in the fifth grade, and 53 thirteen-year-old boys in the sixth grade -- a total of 868 retarded, or 80 per cent of all the boys brought into court by the Department of Compulsory Education during the years 1909-11. Of the thirteen-year-old boys, 1 was in the subnormal room, 6 were in the first grade, 8 were in the second grade, 45 in the sixth grade; only 22 of these boys were above the sixth grade where the normal thirteen-year-old boy belongs.

The relation between truancy and retardation was recognized as being a very close one by the members of the New York School Inquiry Commission, who, in discussing the subject of non-promotion, reported that irregular attendance was "a decided factor in increasing the number of non-promotions," and pointed out that since absence was "a very large factor in increasing the number of non-promotions and hence in increasing congestion, the corresponding responsibility of all concerned to get children into school and to keep them there is therefore clear."

The educational expert employed by this commission to investigate "promotion, non-promotion and part-time" reported on the basis of a careful statistical investigation that in all

(183) grades, the rate of promotion varied inversely with the amount of absence.[6]

On the subject of the physical condition and mental development of truant boys, on which the regularity of their attendance and their conduct and progress in school would in part depend, certain facts are to be found in the records of the Department of Child-Study and of the Parental School. The records of the Department of Child-Study are available, for example, in the cases Of 456 Out Of 473 boys committed to the Parental School in 1909-10, and show that, according to the tests given by that department, 65, or 15 per cent of the boys, were well endowed; 38, or 9 per cent of them, were classified as bright; and 155, or 36 per cent were normal; that is 60 per cent of the whole number were mentally normal; on the other hand, 37, or 8 per cent, were considered degenerate; 61 others, or 14 per cent, were below normal; and 7 9, or 18 per cent, were the victims of nervous defects, making a total Of 40 per cent that could not be called normal.

But in the judgment of the department 106 of those who were mentally normal or above normal were in bad physical condition, while 109 others suffered from both physical and

(184) mental or nervous defects. In other words, only 152, or 35 per cent, were in the judgment of the department both normal mentally and in "fair" physical condition.

Table XXIV Physical and Mental Condition of Boys Committed to Chicago Parental School, 1909-10
(From reports of the Department of Child-Study)
Mental condition Physical Condition
Good Fair Bad Total Percentage
Well endowed 20 23 22 65 15
Bright 3 14 21 38 9
Normal 39 53 63 155 36
Below normal 4 17 40 61 14
Degenerate 4 13 20 37 8
Nervous defects only 5 25 49 79 18
Total no report on mental condition 752 14510 2159 43521 100 ...
Total 77 155 227 456 ...

The precise nature of the physical disability from which the boys suffered is a matter of great interest. Further information furnished by the records showed that the largest number, 158, or 35 per cent, Out Of 456 boys examined, were said to be either undernourished or lacking in vitality, or both undernourished and lacking in vitality.[7] The other children with physical defects suffered chiefly from bad tonsils and adenoids, defective vision, defective hearing, bad teeth, or, in a considerable number of cases, from a combination of these defects.

Obviously, then, a study of the Parental School boys shows that in their cases physical defects had not been discovered

(185) before they were brought into court, and that they represent numbers of children who escape the notice of the school doctor, or are not treated by the doctor, perhaps because their absence from school is not promptly followed up.

For example, a boy who was one of nine children and in the sixth grade was brought into court when thirteen, charged with violation of rules and misconduct on the street. He was found to be suffering from adenoids and enlarged tonsils and from partial deafness due to scarlet fever in infancy. He was also undernourished, as he had been getting his own meals at home. The boy's mother had supported the family by working away from home because the father was a worthless drunkard. The fact that the father had always been very abusive at home and was at one time arrested for beating and ill-treating his children is also significant. In this case the boy improved greatly during the four months that he spent at the Parental School, and was at work and " doing well " when visited by the investigator.

In many cases mental deficiency seems to be connected with truancy. For example, an Italian boy who was brought into court and committed to the Parental School at the age of thirteen seemed to be mentally deficient. For three years he

(186) remained in the first grade of the public school, for two years in the second, and was promoted to the third only on account of his age and his size. Finally he was put in the subnormal room. He was not vicious, but was a constant source of annoyance. He interfered with the children about him, pulling their hair and pushing their things on to the floor. When reproved, he sat perfectly still "like a mule," the investigator was told. The only thing that he enjoyed was going about with his father, who was a peddler, and then describing all the things he had seen. When he stayed away from school he was believed to go with his father. He was very fat and overdeveloped, but his sight, speech, and hearing were perfect. During the year that he was twelve years old he was absent fifty times. When he was thirteen, he ran away from the subnormal room, was brought into court, and sent to the Chicago Parental School, where he remained for six months, until he was fourteen.

A somewhat similar case was that of a Polish boy who had been brought into court "off the streets"--aged thirteen and unable to read-and sent to the Parental School. Upon investigation it appeared that he had been in school for two and one-half months that year, but had been absent twenty-seven days during that time. The home, which was visited, was in charge of a sister, as the mother had been a paralyzed invalid for more than ten years. The father, a cement-layer, and the sister both said that the boy was "no good." They said that he had always been an abnormally bashful boy and was afraid to speak out loud for fear children would laugh at him. He had never been able to learn to read or to write. The father said that he hoped that the investigator had come to put the boy in some institution since he did not feel able to care for him. He has been in court twice as delinquent since leaving the Parental School: once for stealing old iron from the railroad, and once for "bumming" with a gang, one of whom carried

(187) a loaded revolver. The boy, according to the father, "does not want to work, and no one would have him if he did."

There were also several cases of "repeaters," i.e., boys who were sent back to the Parental School for violation of parole, who seemed to be mentally defective boys. An Italian boy was described as "stupid, ill-tempered, and lazy." He "loved the streets" and used frequently to lie to his mother, telling her that there was no school or that the teacher had gone away. When twelve years old, he was still in the third grade of the public school. He was brought into court as a truant and a schoolroom incorrigible, and was committed to the Parental School. After eight months he was paroled, but violated his parole, and was returned within seven months. This time he remained three months, and was finally discharged because he had reached the age limit. In the year since his release he has held four different jobs as messenger boy.

A somewhat similar case was that of a Russian boy who was one of nine children. The family of eleven lived in a very crowded four-room apartment. The mother was untidy and shiftless, and the whole family nervous and excitable. This boy was brought into court when only nine years old for habitual truancy and violation of the rules. He rode about on wagons instead of coming to school; he fought his parents, and became hysterical when they attempted to control him. The mother said that, it made him so nervous to climb the many stairs at the school that she was glad to have him sent away. He was committed to the Parental School, where he stayed five months. He has twice been released on parole, and twice returned.

A visiting teacher or social worker connected with the school, who could follow up the cases of absence like these, endeavor to find the right kind of treatment for the children , and persuade the parents to allow the necessary treatment, would greatly

(188) add to the efficiency of the mental or physical examination and perhaps stimulate the school system to make better provision for the subnormal child.[8]


  1. See Bulletin of the Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction, November 15,1913,in which maybe found a summary of the work of medical inspection of school children for several years.
  2. See Bulletin of the Chicago School of Sanitary Instruction, February 5, 190. The Division of Child Hygiene was constituted in 1915 as follows: school health officers, 106; supervising health officers, 18; field nurses, 92; supervising field nurses, 6; superintendent of nurses, 1; dental surgeons, 10; ophthalmologist, 1, infant welfare physicians, 10; supervising dentist, 1; 3 ; infant welfare nurses, 3; station attendants, 3.
  3. See, for example, W. S. Cornell, Health and Medical Inspection of School Children (Philadelphia, 19112); L. H. Gulick and L. P. Ayres, Medical Inspection of Schools (New York, 1913); L. D. Cruickshank and W. Mackenzie, School Clinics at Home and Abroad (London, 1913); T. N. Kelynack, Medical Examination of Schools and Scholars (London, 1910); L. W. Mackenzie and E. Matthew, The Medical Inspection of School Children (Edinburgh, 1904); Great Britain, Annual Reports of the Chief Medical Officer of the Board of Education (especially 1910).
  4. There is an increasing body of literature dealing with this subject. See, for example, W. E. Fernald, Importance of the Early Discovery and Treatment of Defectives in Public School Classes (Philadelphia, 1906); C. P. Lapage, Feeblemindedness in Children of School Age (Manchester, 1911); G. E. Shuttleworth and W. A. Potts, Mentally Deficient Children (Philadelphia, 1910); A. F. Tredgold, Mental Deficiency (New York, 1912); A. Holmes, Conservation of the Child (Philadelphia, 1912); W. H. Holmes, School Organization and the Individual Child (Worcester, Mass., 1912); T. N. Kelynack, Defective Children (London, 1915).
  5. On this subject, which we cannot discuss at length here, see, for example, L. P. Ayres, Laggards in Our Schools (New York, I 909); L. B. Blan, Special Study of the Incidence of Retardation (New York, 19 11); L. Witmer, The Special Class for Backward Children (Philadelphia, 1911).
  6. Some of the conclusions bearing on this point are so pertinent that they may be quoted at length:
    "(3) The amount of absence in all grades is large; whether it cannot be greatly reduced is a question worthy of immediate and earnest attention.
    "(4) With the exception of the 1A grade, absence affected more seriously the rate of promotion in the higher than in the lower grades; and in all grades, the rate of promotion varies inversely with the amount of absence.
    "(5) Absence is a very large factor in increasing the number of non-promotions and hence in increasing congestion.
    "(6) In view of the effect of absence on the child's progress through the school, the first duty of teachers and principals should be to keep children regular in attendance, and the corresponding responsibility of the department of school attendance is, therefore, very great."-Report of the New York School Inquiry Commission, Vol. I, p. 618.
  7. The following list covers the specific defects enumerated. This list shows only 85 children "lacking vitality," "undernourished," etc., but in 73 other cases this condition was combined with some specific defect. In the list given, the more general statements regarding physical condition are given only in the absence of specific defects.
    Adenoids or bad tonsils or both 80
    Poor vision (31), or defective hearing (5), or bad teeth (22) 58
    Poor vision, hearing, or teeth combined, or combined with adenoids or tonsils 38
    Lacking vitality, undernourished, or both 85
    General physical condition bad 64
    General physical condition fair 67
    General physical condition good 64
    Total number of boys examined 456
  8. In her report for 1913-14, p. 370, Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, superintendent, recommended among other things an increase in the number Of subnormal rooms. "It is readily seen," her report says, "that forty-six rooms is not a sufficient number to provide for this class of pupils. We therefore urge that the number of divisions be materially increased."

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