The Magazine

Let Them Drop Out

A response to the killings in suburban high schools

Apr 9, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 29 • By JACKSON TOBY
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The second myth is that students who leave school before graduating will generate a crime wave. Two longitudinal studies exploded that myth a generation ago: a national study of adolescents conducted by researchers from the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan (Dropping Out: Problem or Symptom?) and a study of California youths conducted by two distinguished criminologists (Delinquency and Dropout). Both studies followed students carefully throughout their high school years and beyond, gathering delinquency data covering the entire time period, and independently reaching the same conclusion: While it is true that high school dropouts have a higher crime rate than students who graduate, the higher delinquency rate precedes their dropping out of school. In the national study, the rate remained at the same high level after the students dropped out of school; in the California study, delinquency actually declined somewhat after the students left. Why didn't their criminality get worse after dropping out? We don't know for sure. Perhaps they could no longer tell their parents that they were going to school and consequently faced pressure to get a job. Those who did often found more responsible role models, and their behavior improved. Of course, some dropouts, already in trouble with the law, did not get jobs and continued a criminal way of life.

So, even apart from successful famous high school dropouts like Marilyn Monroe and George Gershwin, it does not seem that leaving school early is necessarily a career handicap. Formal education is not the only path to responsible adulthood. Furthermore, deciding not to complete high school is a revocable choice. The former governor of New Jersey, Jim Florio, dropped out of high school at 17, joined the Navy, realized that lack of education was a handicap, took the GED exam to obtain a high school degree, and eventually completed college and law school. Instead of locking the high school doors to prevent students from leaving and thereby inviting violence, we ought to let those who leave know that the doors are open when they are ready to return.

Yes, there are students too young to leave school, even temporarily, who feel trapped and miserable. School systems can make other education choices more available for them. We have been gradually moving toward increasing options for the sake of educational effectiveness, and this development should help with the school violence problem, too. There already are alternative schools, charter schools, and private and parochial schools available through voucher programs. The guiding principle should be: Try not to trap kids, because trapped kids can become dangerous to their classmates, their teachers, and themselves. Suburban school massacres are rare; increased options for desperately unhappy kids could make them rarer.