Truancy and Non-Attendance in the Chicago Schools

Chapter 14: Enforcement of the Compulsory Education Law in the Municipal Court of Chicago

Edith Abbott and Sophonisba P. Breckinridge

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It has been pointed out in earlier chapters that the compulsory school law has laid on the parent or guardian of any child within certain prescribed ages the duty of securing the child's attendance at school; upon the educational authorities has been laid the duty of making effective and vigilant use of the power to prosecute those parents who refuse to comply with the requirements.

The necessity for such drastic treatment arises under several different sets of conditions. It should be noted that to assure to all children seven or nine years of schooling is to set a minimum standard of care and education which lays a heavy burden upon families that are poor. A sympathetic understanding of this fact should be shared by all school authorities and judges whose duty it becomes to enforce the law. The poorest parents are often those who are most solicitous for the welfare of their children, but so beset and burdened are they with the hard struggle for life that they see no way of providing for the younger children except to sacrifice the older ones.

The difficulty is of course greatly enhanced when ignorance or indifference is added to poverty. This is found in many instances where the parents have had no reason to appreciate the importance of the child's schooling. Coming, as so many of them do, from the rural districts of our own or of other countries, they have had no experience that will interpret to them the changed demand of the modern industrial community on the child. They, like their fathers and their forefathers, have expected their children to work hard about the house or

(201) farm during childhood and to begin wage-earning life at a very early age, and many of them feel wronged if they are prevented from calling upon their children at an early age to share the burdens of family support. It is, therefore, unreasonable to expect parents to yield at once and without objection to the requirements of the compulsory school law. On this account every opportunity must be used to make known to them their duty under the law, to help them understand the reason for laying the duty upon them, and, where possible, to secure their sympathy and co-operation. The very great difference between the number of parents on whom warning notices must be served, and of those for whom prosecution is found necessary, is an indication of the readiness with which most parents are willing to observe the law when they understand it. Whatever the deficiencies in the system at the present time, however, and whatever the hardships to the parent, the demand of the state is an inexorable one, and stringent enforcement of the statute should be the rule. The state should, in fact, be relentless in demanding that the child's future must not be jeopardized.

When the family is not only poor and unintelligent but irregular in its habits, when there is drunkenness or any other demoralizing influence at work in the home , severer treatment than commitment to the Parental School will be found necessary in order to secure for the child that minimum of education which the state has said he must have. In such cases, after being duly warned, the parent himself becomes the object of prosecution. In 1913-14, for example, it was found necessary to prosecute 67 parents who had with 1,09 others been duly warned, but, unlike the others, had failed to heed the warning. Table XXVI shows the number of warning notices served and of prosecutions carried through by the Department of Compulsory Education from 1900 to 1914.

It is interesting to note the great increase in the number of prosecutions and of warning notices for three years after 1903,

(202) when the law was amended. For the next year there was a marked drop in both warnings and prosecutions, and, although the law was again radically amended in 1907, there was no striking change as a result. It is, in fact, impossible to discover from these figures evidence of any policy directing the use either of

Table XXVI Number of Warning Notices and Prosecutions, 1900-1914
Year Ending June 30 Warning Notices Prosecutions*
1900 12 31
1901 17
1902 163
1903 479 204
1904 1,060 307
1905 4,293 451
1906 2,820 702
1907 2,219 120
1908 1,646 178
1909 1,437 108
1910 1,713 138
1911 1,884 105
1912 1,533 118
1913 1,611 129
1914 1,236 67
Total 21,933 2,844

* Up to the year 1903-4 these figures seem to include prosecutions of boys in the Juvenile Court.
†Figures not given in published reports.

warning notices or of prosecutions. The superintendent explains the decrease in 1914 as compared with 1913 as evidencing "public respect for the enforced law on school attendance and the knowledge that truant officers' warnings must be heeded.", Such a sudden access of public respect for the law would be more easily understood if the figures for the four pre-

(203) -ceding years had indicated that such a respect was growing and might suddenly expand, but the figures go up and then down in a way that cannot be easily or satisfactorily accounted for. Unfortunately, the results of the prosecutions are not known. No figures are published in the annual reports of the Board of Education to show what disposition was made of their cases. It is, therefore, impossible to tell how many parents were fined, or how many were imprisoned or discharged. No conclusions can be drawn therefore as to what had or what had not proved to be effective treatment of such cases.

Attention has been called above to the lack of other machinery for interpreting the attitude of the community effectively to the parent. Prosecution followed by a fine is a harsh method of interpretation, but it is one whose message can hardly be misunderstood, The imposition of a fine results in the placing of a money estimate upon the child's attendance. This at least every parent can understand; and if anyone has been tempted to allow his child to leave school for the sake of the child's earnings, he can measure the relative advantage of school attendance without wages and of absence with the risk of being fined. Moreover, as many of these parents are very poor, the fine is sometimes not paid, but is "laid out" in the bridewell or the county jail at the rate of fifty cents a day. This means the forfeiture of the man's wages, as well as detention and separation from his family. Not only the family, but the entire neighborhood is thus impressed with the concern of the state for the education even of the poorest child.

The prosecutions, as has been said, are, in Chicago, instituted in the Municipal Court, and, since April 3, 1911, in that branch of the Municipal Court known as the Court of Domestic Relations. The case for the prosecution is presented by a representative of the Department of Compulsory Education, and testimony is offered by the principal or teacher from the school attended by the child. The accused has, of course,

(204) a right to trial by jury, but is usually willing to waive jury trial and to leave the finding to the judge. The parents are often represented by counsel, but the trial is quite informal, and the decision really turns upon the question of adequate warning and on the honest effort of the parent to secure the child's attendance. It is, of course, usually the father who is the defendant in these prosecutions. Out Of 58 cases brought into the Court of Domestic Relations during the period for which we have records only 5 were against guardians other than the father, 4 of these were against the mother, and I against the brother of the child.

No figures are available showing the results of the prosecutions in the Municipal Court except for a single year, April 3, 1911, to March 31, 1912, the first year of the Court of Domestic Relations. During that year 124 persons were brought in and 74 Of them were fined.[2] In the other 50 cases no fine was imposed. In some instances where no fine is imposed, the case is "continued" for two weeks or a month, so that the parents may show whether they can and will undertake to send the child to school; and sometimes when the fine is imposed, the court will suspend its collection and then under form of dismissal remit the fine because of improved attendance on the part of the child. By both of these devices the family is really placed on probation.

It does not appear that any more definite policy characterizes the treatment of these cases by the court than their treatment by the Department of Compulsory Education. As the actions which have been taken are not available in published

(205) reports, figures were obtained from the records, by which a comparison of the treatment of cases during the months April, May, and June, 1911, could be made with the corresponding months of the following year, when there had been a change in the personnel of the court. Under the earlier administration 47 out of 71 cases, or 2 out of 3, were fined, while during the second period only 2 1 out of the same number, or less than 1 in 3, were fined, and the other 50 escaped punishment altogether. During the four years following the opening of the court, five different judges had general assignments to this court,[3] and there was no reason to hope for an agreement among them with reference to the seriousness of this particular responsibility. It is, in fact, inevitable that there should be a difference in policy on the part of the judges, since the whole question of the importance of the child's right to be in school every half-day the school is open is still so lightly regarded by many well-meaning people in the community. To the judge, the ancient parental right to determine for the child must still seem very important, and the case for intervention on the part of the community would have to be made very clear. Not until the Court of Domestic Relations has been thoroughly socialized, and is presided over only by men who can and will inform themselves with regard to the nature of the pressing social problems with which they deal, can the court become an effective instrument for social treatment.

Attention is called in the preceding chapter to the fact that, although the parental school law applies to girls as well as to boys, no provision has been made at the Parental School for girls. It was also pointed out that very few girls have been brought into the juvenile Court as truants -37 girls out of a total Of 5,659 children. A very considerable number of parents are, however, disciplined in the Municipal Court for allowing their daughters to remain out of school. Out of 58 compulsory

(205) education cases brought in during the spring of 1911, 20 were cases in which girls had remained out of school, while out of go cases for which the facts were available in 1912-13, 42, or about 50 per cent, were cases of girl truants. Attention might be called here again to the fact that whereas the truant boy is a source of disturbance, attracting notice on the street and more or less getting himself into trouble, the non-attending girl usually is helping in her father's shop, taking care of the baby, caring for her sick mother, or doing some other household task. One thirteen-year-old girl, for example, whose father, an Italian, had a fruit and cigar store, lost sixty-six days during one school year and had been at school only a day and a half prior to November 13, of the following year. The mother was sick, and the girl was kept out of school to help in the store and about the home. Another thirteen-year-old Italian girl, who was only in the second grade, had been kept at home because the mother "took in" several men boarders; there were three or four younger children, and she was needed to help at home.

When the reasons for keeping the children at home are examined, they explain the fact, too, that the girls for whose absence parents are brought into the Municipal Court are older than the boys. Out Of 20 girls whose parents were prosecuted, 13 were twelve or older, while only 13 out of 38 boys were twelve or over. In a considerable number of cases the girl's absence means that she is being used at home; the boy's more often indicates a family life too irregular and careless to get the younger children ready for school, since the older boy is more likely to be brought into the juvenile Court and sent to the Parental School.

As has been said, some of the parents are merely ignorant and use their children in household tasks or send them out to work unnecessarily; but there are some homes where the poverty is great and the mother goes out to work, so that the child, sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy, stays at home to take the mother's

(207) place. For example, Helen, who was twelve years old, was absent sixty-two half-days between September and February. Her father was ill and unable to work. The mother went out washing four days a week and kept Helen at home to care for the baby. The statement made by the mother in court was, that she could make no other arrangement for the baby, and "anyway she did not have time to comb the girl's hair and get her ready for school."

There are also families in which the mother is dead and the father has failed to make provision for a housekeeper, and the children are consequently neglected and forlorn. For example, the wife of Mr. H_____ died, leaving three children, a girl who did the housework in the morning before going to her job in a tobacco factory, a fourteen-year-old boy, and a nine-year-old boy, both of whom were irregular in attendance. The older boy was mischievous, but the younger was not at all troublesome, merely neglected. The father was away all day long, and there was no one to look after the boys or to help them as they came or went. The mother of another family had died the year before, leaving three boys; the oldest did what housekeeping there was done, but it is not surprising that all three were irregular in their attendance and came to school, when they did come, uncombed and neglected. The father told the court that he was very strict but that the boys stayed away without his knowledge. He expected to be less busy in the future and would see that they attended regularly. Evidently such families need many services other than those connected with prosecution. The thing lacking in this one was a kind woman's care, and paving a fine or serving a term in the bridewell will hardly secure that.

There are other cases of a more difficult kind, in which the father, or perhaps the mother, drinks, or where the mother is of questionable morality; where the home is filthy, and the children really neglected. Such a case was that of two Polish

(208) boys, thirteen and fourteen years old, neither of whom could read or write, and both of whom had been for a long time very irregular in school attendance. The mother, who was a widow, drank constantly, and a sixteen-year-old girl was the sole support of the family. The judge sent the mother to the bridewell for thirty days. In such cases, the punishment and discipline of the parents may perhaps have a wholesome effect. Such cases should, however, be followed by further supervision of the children. In other words, we find, as we should expect, that the families that are brought into court are representatives of the lowest groups of homes from which come the non-attending children whose absences are studied in other chapters. For some of these children this method of treatment seems quite inadequate.

Reference was made in an earlier chapter to the statute providing a penalty for such conduct on the part of parents or guardians as is likely to contribute to the dependency or to the delinquency of children.[4] Prosecution under this statute is usually an item in a definite plan for the treatment of a child who has been held dependent or delinquent, as the

(209) case may be, by the juvenile Court. In the same way, the prosecution of these "truant" parents may be required in the interest of the child, and where necessary should be resorted to vigorously. But this, too, should be an item in a program of treatment for the child which would include all those devices intended for the rehabilitation of the home as well as this special device for disciplining the parent. Unconscious recognition of this need is shown in occasional cases in which the Department of Compulsory Education uses the court for exactly this purpose and attempts to secure through punishment for non-attendance such discipline as will result in the better care of the children and remove the causes of nonattendance. In one home, for example, the mother was ill, the children neglected and filthy, and their attendance irregular. Evidently, the whole household had to be raised to a cleaner and better standard, and the judge, while he imposed a fine on the father, also directed that a probation officer be called upon to aid in the supervision of the family life.

Cases of this character suggest, again, interesting questions of method and jurisdiction. The school should, of course, and when adequately equipped will, perform for all children of compulsory school age the service of discovering conditions hostile to their well-being. Through the school nurse and the medical inspector, serious conditions of neglect will be revealed. The discovery is, however, of little value unless followed by adequate treatment of those conditions. Moreover, in many cases, the conditions may be below any possible "minimum of child care" and may yet not manifest themselves in ways discoverable by the physician. For such cases there is needed the trained eye of the person skilled in the care of children and familiar with other symptoms of neglect. And, in fact, in all cases, the care of the person skilled in the art of helping families to lift themselves out of the mire of irregular, shiftless, or dissolute living is absolutely essential. Resort to discipline and

(210) compulsion must sometimes be necessary, and there should be fairly definite standards of cleanliness and regularity below which no family should be allowed to remain. If the final action in such cases could be to leave the family under sympathetic probationary care, such action might more frequently secure for the children that measure of nurture described by the juvenile Court law as "proper parental care."


  1. Sixtieth Annual Report of the Board of Education of Chicago (1913-14), p. 407, "Report of the Superintendent of Compulsory Education."
  2. The fine for failing to secure attendance, as has been said, may be anything between $5 and $20, with or without costs, which amount generally to about $8.50. The amount most commonly imposed is $5 without costs. Between July 1, 1911 and June 30, 1912, 45 persons were fined. Of these, 36 were fined $5 without costs, seven were fined $5 with costs, one $10 without, and one $10 with costs. Five "laid out" their fines in in (sic) the House of Correction, and three in the county jail.
  3. Beside brief special and vacation assignments.
  4. "Any parent, legal guardian or person having the custody of a male under the age of 17 years or of a female under the age of 18 years, who shall knowingly or wilfully cause, aid or encourage such person to be or to become a dependent and neglected child . . . . or .... do acts which directly tend to render any such child so dependent and neglected, or who shall knowingly or wilfully fail to do that which will directly tend to prevent such state of dependency and neglect shall be deemed guilty of the crime of contributing to the dependency and neglect of children .....
    "Any person who shall knowingly or wilfully cause, aid or encourage any male under the age of seventeen ( 17) years or any female under the age of eighteen (18) years to be or to become a delinquent child . . . . or . . . . do acts which will directly tend to render any such child so and who when able to do so, shall wilfully neglect to do that which will directly tend to prevent such state of delinquency shall be deemed guilty of the crime of contributing to the delinquency of children. "- Laws of Illinois, 1915, pp. 368-69.

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