03/21/2016 11:28 EDT | Updated 03/22/2017 05:12 EDT

What's Worse Than Skipping School?

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Young man in handcuffs

Last week, just before March break, a high school student in Ontario was sent to jail overnight. Her offence was truancy. Apparently, this young woman was in the habit of skipping school. While I do not know anything about the circumstances of her life or what led up to her being apprehended by police, I have a few questions about an Education Act that could lead to such action.

Most of us understand that all children have a right to a basic education as guaranteed under section 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This right includes an obligation for signatory states to provide mandatory, good quality, and free education to all children -- including those who are hard to serve, like the young woman who was apprehended and briefly jailed.

In Canada, like the rest of the world, most families are very happy to send their kids to school. They want their children to have an education -- and schools are generally safe places for children to stay while their adults are working outside the home. If we have parents encouraging and nagging at their kids to get to school, why do we need laws to keep them there?

One of the reasons we have mandatory education is to protect young people from exploitation. As much as it would benefit many of us to have our children in the workforce, we must send them to school. Families are obliged by law and subject to penalties for failing to send children under the age of 18 (in many jurisdictions, 16 in others) to school. For this reason, it is generally the adults who face punishment for keeping children from school.

I find it rather ironic that the usual discipline meted out for skipping school is detention, then suspension, and sometimes even expulsion.

It is pretty clear that countries with mandatory education to secondary school level are much better off economically than those where children don't have the same opportunities. This means that the children themselves benefit from having a greater chance for future employment and the country, as a whole, benefits significantly from having a well-educated and employed population.

What should a society that values education do when children refuse to go to school? Should they punish the adults in the family who do not seem to be able to control the child's behaviour? Should they punish children for refusing to take advantage of a benefit they are obliged to accept?

I find it rather ironic that the usual discipline meted out for skipping school is detention, then suspension, and sometimes even expulsion. How well is this likely to work? A child doesn't want to go to school so we put in place ways to keep her from going to school. Sounds more like a reward than a punishment.

The young people of my acquaintance who have missed a lot of school are people living complex lives. In general, they tend to be people for whom the standard school experience has not been a happy one. Whatever their educational and personal needs might be, they have not been met by the school they are required by law to attend. If they had, the students would not be seeking every opportunity to escape.

If we are going to have mandatory education, should we not be spending more of our resources to ensure that ALL of our children have a positive and beneficial school experience? When a child is arrested for truancy, something has failed. And it isn't the child.

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