Mr. and Mrs. Bueller's night in jail

James Alan Fox and Jack Levin

In the 1986 film classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," actor Matthew Broderick asked casually, "How can I possibly be expected to handle school on a day like this?" Playing hooky, formerly regarded as little more than an adolescent prank, is nowadays prompting a decidedly punitive response.

Today's lawmakers would be looking to haul Ferris's parents off to jail for failing to ensure his attendance at school. According to recent data, school absenteeism has become an epidemic.For many of our children, skipping school is the largest part of their daily routine. Gone are the days of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic, now replaced by an extended version of recess.

In Detroit, for example, 63,000 students - more than one-third of the city's public school population - cut at least 30 days of classes last year. In New York City, 65,000 students were chronically absent without a legitimate excuse. "Where are these kids' parents?" we collectively ask.

It has long been fashionable to point fingers at parents when their kids misbehave. Ever since Sigmund Freud, we've been quick to scapegoat parents for their children's aberrant or delinquent behavior.

Bad kids have been seen inevitably as the products of bad homes and bad parenting. Thus, communities across the country are going so far as to enact and enforce parental responsibility laws for a range of adolescent acting out, from burglary to gun crimes. Now we can add truancy to the list. Many states are counting on legal sanctions to coerce and scare parents into taking more responsibility for their truant youngsters.

In February, when their children failed to show up for class, six mothers from Springfield, Ill. were threatened with 30 days in jail. Last May, a grand jury in Brewton, Ala., indicted the 10 parents of truant teenagers on charges punishable by three months behind bars. And the parents of 67 out-of-school children in Detroit face prospects of being incarcerated for up to 90 days. 

Other states are now in the process of passing bills that would toughen the penalties against parents. In Ohio, such legislation has gone through the senate and awaits review by the house. In Virginia, a get-tough-on-parents law was recently signed by the governor.

Holding parents legally responsible for their children's chronic absenteeism sounds better than it is. First, such laws send the wrong message to wayward youngsters who are all too eager to escape the blame for their misconduct. By aiming the legal sanctions at mom and dad, we teach children that they need not feel personally responsible for their truancy - that only their parents need to change, not them.

Even worse, parental responsibility laws may backfire by persuading more parents to distance themselves from their difficult youngsters rather than face the possibility - if they fail - of being fined or spending time behind bars. Why take the risk yourself when you can let the state take over if you're having problems with your child? This may mean less diligent parenting, not more.

At the very time in our history when the family is fast becoming an endangered species, let's consider a wholly different approach to wayward parents. We should assist them, not assail them. Rather than making mom and dad the truant officers of society, we should take a more positive approach to the problem of truancy.

We ought to be generating programs and policies that support parents to deal with their incorrigible youngsters. We might also try making school more appealing by bringing back art, drama, music, and athletics. Frequently referred to disparagingly as the "frills," these are the very activities that used to make school interesting enough to attend - even without being forced by parents or the law.

James Alan Fox is The Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice and Jack Levin is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University, in Boston.

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