Purpose: Although urban youth frequently experience police contact, there remains a considerable gap in our knowledge about the consequences of police stops on a young person's academic performance and long term educational trajectory. Prior research has shown that students may often refrain from attending school because they may be avoiding difficult interactions or situations that may arise on their way to school, during school hours, or on their commute home. Considering that urban youth of color are disproportionately stopped by police and recognizing the detrimental consequences of chronic absenteeism, this study attempted to discern whether police contact is a factor in some incidences of chronic absenteeism. This study aimed to examine whether arrests, police stops not resulting in arrest, and vicarious police contact are associated with chronic school absenteeism.
Methods: Data and Sample: Data was drawn from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), a study that follows 4,898 couples with children that were born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 large US cities.
Measures: Direct police contact was measure with a three-category measure that indicated whether youth had never experienced police contact, experienced police contact but not been arrested, and been arrested. Vicarious police contact was a dichotomous measure that asked whether youth had either witnessed a police stop or who know someone who had been stopped. Chronic absenteeism was measured by a single dichotomous item that assessed whether a caregiver ever discussed tardiness or absences with their child’s teacher. Five items were included in the analysis as mediators (GPA, current delinquency, suspension, peer delinquency). Several sociodemographic, health, and behavioral control variables were included.
Results: Logistic regression analyses indicated that youth who had been arrested, stopped without arrest, and had witnessed or heard about a stop all had higher odds for experiencing absenteeism than youth who had not experienced police contact. Utilizing the Karson, Holm, and Breen (KHB) method for mediation, GPA, current delinquency, history of suspension, and peer delinquency were found to be statistically significant mediators of this relationship.
Conclusions and Implications: Results from this study indicate that police contact may play a role in chronic school absences for urban youth. This study provides new evidence for the growing body of literature that examines the consequences of police contact and surveillance on adolescent development. The seemingly ubiquitous presence of police in the lives of urban youth is a stark reminder of the lingering effects of zero-tolerance policies in schools and communities. Social workers and advocates for criminal and juvenile justice reform can address these harmful effects through targeted training with police, school administrators, and youth.