Originally created 07/31/05

Getting a handle on truancy



If pupils aren't in class, they can't learn, and in an age of accountability, school officials are geared to make sure that pupils are in class.

Richmond and Columbia counties will implement tougher truancy policies in the fall - policies that crack down on absenteeism.

Both pupils who habitually skip school and their parents could end up in court, and the worst offenders could enter a new kind of detention - one served in a jail cell.

Though most people agree that keeping pupils in classrooms is a good thing, some question the motivation behind enforcing stricter attendance.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires 95 percent participation on standardized tests used to mark a school's academic achievement, or Adequate Yearly Progress. The law also demands a second indicator to judge school performance. In many districts, the second indicator is attendance.

"The question that has to be asked is, 'Why are you getting students to school?'" said Dan Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association, a teacher advocacy group. "Is it just to be test-takers, or to get an enriching experience from a well-rounded curriculum?"

All Georgia high schools use graduation rates as their second indicator, and most of the state's middle and elementary schools use attendance rates, said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.

"You can't have 15 percent of a school's population absent for more than 15 days and meet the second indicator," Mr. Tofig said.

To encourage school systems to lower absenteeism, the state Department of Education enacted a policy last August that required local boards to form committees meant to update their attendance policies.

"I do believe No Child Left Behind and the pressure to meet Adequate Yearly Progress was the motivation behind the new policy that passed in the state," said Merchuria Chase Williams, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators. "The whole notion of 'a child cannot learn if a child isn't in a school' is a true one, but you don't want to make a school appear to be a prison. It's a balancing act."

Sandra Carraway, the assistant school superintendent in Columbia County, acknowledged that toughening the system's attendance policy is meant to help meet Adequate Yearly Progress attendance requirements and test participation rates. But meeting attendance standards wasn't the only reason for the policy revision, she said.

"If you want students to perform well on standardized tests, they need to be in school regularly," Dr. Carraway said. "But it's not just them performing well on standardized tests. It's getting them a good education. You can't do that if they're not in school."

To ensure that pupils are in school, Richmond County's new truancy policy cracks down on absenteeism by punishing truancy with jail time.

The county's truancy protocol committee has been working to streamline the procedures and addressing the truancy problem, even if it means getting pupils and their parents in front of a judge, school board attorney Pete Fletcher said.

"The whole idea of all of this is to have a 15-day turnaround," he said. "The problem we've run into in the past is that there hasn't been a sense of urgency or a sense or priority to get these cases before the court."

The truancy protocol adds the "mechanical process" to usher truant pupils before a judge faster, Richmond County Juvenile Court Judge Herbert Kernaghan said. It could take a pupil 45 days to see a judge under the old system.

"It lets us get a handle on it before they miss 20 more days," he said.

During his eight years of hearing truancy cases, Judge Kernaghan said he has heard the "full realm of excuses," including one from a mother who forged a doctor's excuse using less-than-stellar spelling. Another mother kept her children home for company.

"It makes you wonder what is going on with parents and children," he said. "I tell them the child better not miss another day."

Usually the parents comply, Judge Kernaghan said. Of the 49 children 10 and younger who appeared before him with a month left of class last school year, only one has missed school again.

Still, he said that if he could talk to all parents about truancy, about half wouldn't listen.

"They don't give a flip if their children go to school or not," Judge Kernaghan said. It would take "Solomon to solve that."

Columbia County's new absentee policy also places pressure on parents to get their children into school. Punishments for parents with truant children range from a $25 fine to jail time.

Before adopting the new absentee policy, school officials in Columbia County already offered incentives such as test exemptions and prizes to keep pupils in school.

"We gave a lot of incentives to the kids," said Lisa Solof, Columbia County's Title I director.

"We really watched it and made sure we were keeping good contact with the parents and let them know what was taking place."

As a result, absentee rates dropped from 8.9 percent in 2004 to 7.1 percent in 2005.

Truancy - chronic or extended absenteeism - went up during the same time period, though. From August 2004 to June 2005, 45 truancy cases appeared in Columbia County Juvenile Court, according to records. From October 2003 to September 2004, only 11 truancy cases appeared before the court.

"This policy will make the biggest difference with students who are chronically absent, not the average student," Dr. Carraway said. "For parents of students with attendance problems, it's going to give them some responsibility and accountability for having their young ones at school."

According to Frank Roberson, the associate superintendent of instruction for Aiken County public schools, the district has a very aggressive system of dealing with truancy. The district pushes a policy of not missing any days, but doesn't have a limit on the number of excused absences a pupil can have.

There are stiff policies for unexcused absences, however:

After three consecutive unexcused absences, the school meets with the parents to do an "intervention plan" to address the problem. It will do the same if a pupil has five unexcused absences that are not necessarily consecutive, just not excused.

The district prefers not to suspend pupils for truancy, because that adds to the problem. The intervention plan the schools put in place can involve court hearings with the pupil and a legal guardian. If a guardian disagrees with any decision made by the school, he or she can appeal to the Area Advisory Council, which is made up of local residents. There are five Area Advisory Councils, one for each area in the Aiken County School District.

Aiken County has a 96 percent attendance rate. About 2 percent of those absent do not have legitimate reasons, Dr. Roberson said.

Mr. Kaufman, of the National Education Association, said low participation rates in standardized tests is one of three main reasons schools are failing Adequate Yearly Progress. Still, he said, he's unsure that getting tough on absenteeism is the answer.

He'd prefer to see a loosening of No Child Left Behind rules regarding test participation and absenteeism.

"It's very strict and rigid," Mr. Kaufman said. "A school can be doing well, but if it doesn't meet an arbitrary benchmark, it can be labeled failing. It's either/or. Either you're passing, or you're failing."

Truancy Policy Highlights

Richmond County
- The Richmond County truancy policy defines a truant as a child with more than five days of unexcused absences during an academic year. Pupils who are absent must submit a written excuse the day they return to school. Only excuses on the approved list of excuses will be accepted.
- The following excuses are permitted: Personal illness, family death and funeral, medical and dental appointments that can't be scheduled outside of the school day, attendance of nonschool activities approved by the superintendent or his designee, special and recognized religious holidays observed by the pupil's faith, mandate or order by a government agency and extreme circumstances that can't be handled outside of school hours with the approval of the principal or the principal's designee.
- Pupils with unexcused absences can't make up the work they missed.
- After five absences, a parent must provide a note from a physician or an acceptable third party justifying the absence.

Richmond County consequences
- Pupils who miss school can't participate in extracurricular, co-curricular or cooperative work experience activities. After the fifth unexcused absence, pupils must have a physician's note to return to extracurricular activities.
- Pupils who miss school with unexcused absences are not allowed to make up work or retake tests. Any missed assignments or tests are recorded as zeros.
- Pupils with two unexcused absences or three consecutive absences will be referred to a school social worker or visiting teacher, who will notify the juvenile court judge or his designee.
- New under the policy, parents also will be notified that the juvenile court can incarcerate juveniles for up to 60 days.
- After five unexcused absences, the truant pupil must appear in court.
- Each unexcused absence after the fifth unexcused absence is a separate misdemeanor offense, punishable by fines of $25 to $100, imprisonment not to exceed 30 days, community service or a combination of the penalties.

Suspended and expelled pupils
For the purpose of the attendance protocol only, suspended and expelled pupils in Richmond County are considered excused from school. As far as discipline, they are considered unexcused.

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Columbia County
- The following excuses are permitted: Personal illness, serious illness or death of an immediate family member, special and recognized religious holidays, mandated order of government agencies, registration to vote (limited to one day), emergencies that reasonably necessitate absences from school and service as pages in the state Legislature with prior approval of the school.
- Chronically ill children can receive a reprieve from the policy if medical proof is given.

Columbia County consequences
- After two absences, a letter of warning is sent home to parents by certified mail.
- Only five absences in a semester can be excused with a parental note.
- After five absences, a note will be required by a health-care professional to excuse an absence
- After seven unexcused absences in a semester, a child might be reported to the Columbia County Sheriff's Office truancy abatement program.
- After 10 absences in a semester, excused or unexcused, a child might be reported to the sheriff's office.
- Violations of the truancy policy by pupils might mean fines, or even jail time, for their parents.

Suspended and expelled pupils
- In Columbia County, if a pupil is suspended the absences are unexcused, but they don't count against the truancy policy.

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Aiken County
- Aiken County defines a truant as a child with either three consecutive days of unexcused absences or five total unexcused absences during an academic year. Any pupil who misses school must present a written excuse signed by a parent, legal guardian or a medical provider.
- If a pupil does not present a valid excuse within five days, he or she automatically will receive an unexcused absence. If a pupil misses 10 or more days of school, a medical note might be required.
- The following excuses are considered valid: Illness, death in the immediate family, serious illness in the pupil's immediate family, recognized religious holiday of the pupil's faith, preapproved traveling or events considered educational, and emergencies or extreme hardships determined at the discretion of the principal.
- Any chronic or extended illness must have a note from a physician or other health-care provider.

Aiken County consequences
- Once a pupil is found to be truant, the school may launch an "intervention plan," which includes calling parents and legal guardians or visiting the child's home. A written plan may be put in place to rectify attendance problems. If the pupil accumulates another unexcused absence after an intervention plan has been drafted, then the pupil is referred to the district attendance supervisor.
- The school district may refer the problem to family court if the parent or legal guardian refuses to cooperate with the intervention plan.
- Any decision made by a principal on attendance can be appealed to the Area Advisory Council.

Suspended and expelled students
In-school suspensions do not count as absences.