The University of QueenslandEmpowering at-risk truants

Empowering at-risk truants

university-queensland-truants

The University of Queensland’s Ability School Engagement Program has received international acclaim for increasing school attendance and reducing antisocial behaviour

Truancy is a concern for education authorities worldwide, with it adversely affecting children’s prospects at school and in later life. In response to this, criminologist Lorraine Mazerolle and her team at The University of Queensland’s School of Social Science have developed the Ability School Engagement Program (ASEP). Supported by a grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC), ASEP tackles truancy by bringing together children, parents, teachers and the police to empower at-risk students, instead of punishing them and their parents.

The project began in 2009, after a police superintendent in a disadvantaged area of Queensland visited the local schools. “Noticing the negative reception that the police received at schools, she went to see one of the principals to build a relationship. It was found that 98 per cent of the kids who were chronically skipping school were known to the police in some way,” explains Professor Mazerolle.

This led to Professor Mazerolle and her colleague Sarah Bennett being recruited to develop the partnership model, building on their expertise in police partnerships with various public entities. Common to all these previous police partnerships was the use of legal levers. In the case of truancy, the legal lever is the requirement for parents to send their children to school. Professor Mazerolle acknowledges that “many parents do not know it’s their legal responsibility.”

ASEP’s aim is to gain parental “willing compliance within the truancy laws and get the kids back to school”. The key mechanism for doing this is the ASEP Family Group Conference attended by the parents, their child, a representative from the school, a uniformed police officer and a trained facilitator. The sessions are carefully scripted and culminate in actions for each party.

“The combination of police working as partners with the schools, communicating legislative responsibilities and using a dialogue of procedural fairness, helps people to understand what is expected. That increases a parent’s compliance and the willingness of children to attend school,” says Professor Mazerolle.

The pilot showed that the intervention group participants were much more likely to attend school and much less likely to behave antisocially than the participants in the control group. The programme has since received an additional A$1.8 million (£950,000) in funding and will expand from 102 students to 1,000.

ASEP has also been recognised internationally. The US National Institute of Justice featured the programme on its CrimeSolutions website. Meanwhile, Professor Mazerolle, Dr Bennett and their team won the American Society of Criminology’s prestigious Award for Outstanding Experimental Field Trial. The team is now investigating how ASEP could be applied elsewhere with law enforcement agencies in the UK, US and Canada.

“We’ve come a long way,” says Professor Mazerolle. “The process has shown that ‘every day counts’, as the saying goes in Australia. We’re now at a critical stage where we hope that ASEP will prove itself for a broad range of students.”

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