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In this issue:

New Truancy legislation: More support for kids with chronic illness

By Karen W. Smith APR is the executive director of PenSPRA, the Pennsylvania School Public Relations Association. She is also a board member at Central Bucks SD.

Running up the stairs for the fourth time that morning, she glanced at her watch yet again. 7:32. The bus would be here in 10 minutes and 9-year-old James still refused to get out of bed. Downstairs she could hear the baby crying and the dog whining to go out.

“James, please get up,” she begged as she entered his room again.

“I can’t. I can’t go, mom. I feel so bad,” James answered, pulling his Batman sheets over his head and hugging his bedraggled stuffed dog.

Blinking back tears of frustration, she reached for the phone to call out of work for the second time that week, and notify the school that James would be absent. Remembering the letter sitting on the dining room table, she prayed today’s absence would not be the day that triggered the report of truancy to the judge.

“What am I supposed to do?” she thought for the hundredth time, her heart racing. “Am I going to be fined or go to jail because my kid can’t go to school?”

Truant. To some, the word conjures up images of a sullen teenager slouching on a street corner, wasting away the days. For most families facing the issue of truancy, however, it is not misbehavior keeping students out of school. From chronic illness to family issues, students miss school for a variety of reasons that can be difficult to resolve, and the resulting truancy situation is a tremendous stress to all involved, from the student to the family to the school.

On Nov. 3, 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf signed new truancy legislation into law. Act 138 revises multiple parts of the PA School Code, and is a positive step for families and schools dealing with truancy. The legislation makes a number of changes, which broadly are; a proactive approach with early intervention, greater flexibility in penalty provisions and clarity in the definitions.

Pennsylvania’s former truancy laws didn’t leave schools with many options when it came to enforcement, said Katherine Fitz-Patrick Esq., PSBA Policy counsel and a member of the statewide Educational Success and Truancy Prevention Workgroup commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Children’s Roundtable. “The old provisions of the School Code related to the enforcement of compulsory school attendance were adopted at a time when parents were much more likely to permit or even encourage their school-age children to obtain a job rather than attend school. The recent amendments move away from punitive measures and toward a more holistic approach to improving school attendance through greater flexibility at all steps in the process.”

In addition to defining the terms involved with truancy, Act 138 establishes new procedures for truant or habitually truant students. Prior to reporting a habitually truant student to the magisterial district judge, school officials must now schedule a school attendance improvement conference with the student and his or her family and draft an individualized attendance improvement plan. Best practices show this proactive step has been found to reduce absences for many students, and may mean further escalation will not be necessary. School officials may find there is little they need to do to respond to this aspect of the new legislation, if they have already been planning and holding such conferences.

“York County will not be confronted with many obstacles in implementing the provisions of the new truancy legislation because many of the newly adopted measures were components of the attendance protocols established by our Truancy Initiative and the Truancy Task Force,” said Brad Trostle, dropout prevention counselor at New Oxford High School in the Conewago Valley SD (Adams Co.) and a member of the York County Truancy Initiative.

Dr. Betsy Adams, Berks Initiative for School Attendance coordinator, and member of the Truancy Workgroup, agrees.

“The major changes in the law are at the magisterial district judge level, but the new law clearly emphasizes that schools need to be working with the parents and students to find out why the student is missing and work to correct the problem, rather than just sending out citations. I like the emphasis on trying to solve the problem and not just penalizing the parent or student. However, the paperwork and mandated meetings do require more work and time for schools not accustomed to holding such conferences,” said Adams.

Study of best practices by the Truancy Workgroup, which was instrumental in developing the new legislation, found that school officials and magistrates working with truant youth needed flexibility in their decision-making. The new law allows for referral to the county children and youth agency, or a school- or community-based attendance improvement program, before referral to the courts, as was the case under the old law.

“When instructing my staff on the new law, I emphasized that improving attendance is not a process of punitive measure, but rather about forging relationships to prevent the citations from being issued,” said Katharine S. Diorio, supervisor of pupil services for the Red Lion Area SD (York Co.).

Under the new law, truancy penalties also are based on best practices and aimed at keeping students in the classroom and reducing the stress to families. Schools may not discipline a student by removing him or her from the school based on truancy alone, as research indicated these reactions fail to improve attendance in the long run. If a family and school do end up in court for truancy, the school has to prove a student was habitually truant, while subject to the compulsory attendance law, without justification. A student or parent, however, may still put forth evidence that the habitual truancy was justified.

Many may not be aware that parents and guardians can pay court fines or spend time in jail if their child is truant from school. The new legislation creates some flexibility for judges with this step, and jail time is to be used only if parents or guardians are convicted of contempt of court for willfully failing to comply with a penalty.

Some people have criticized the new legislation because court fines for truancy can be higher under the new law for subsequent offenses, however, the clarity of the terms and new procedures in the law may actually result in fewer fines overall for families with a habitually truant student. These new procedures aim to prevent stacking, the filing of multiple citations while the underlying citation is pending, which under the old law sometimes resulted in the proliferation of fines as a result of multiple citations being filed against a single student and/or their parent or guardian.

“The truancy issue hit hard when my 15-year-old son began showing signs of severe depression and anxiety,” said a parent who wished to remain anonymous. “His depression became worse at the same time as the school began sending home citations, magnifying the emotional and legal battle we were facing. We faced court dates and potential fines. It was very startling to get citations in the mail and very upsetting for my son – already at a low point in his life – to stand before a judge and defend his illness.”

Recognizing the myriad of reasons which keep students out of school, the new law seeks to address truancy with flexibility and a more individualized approach. Because research shows that attendance is an important predictive factor in a student’s future academic success, it is an issue that must be addressed. Even that sullen teenager on the street corner needs support, and the new truancy legislation will assist parents, schools and social service agencies to provide it proactively. B

Did you know?

Since 2009, PSBA has been a significant part of the effort to change truancy laws, now realized in Act 138.

That year, the Educational Success and Truancy Prevention Workgroup was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the Children’s Roundtable to gather information about truancy and to outline a series of recommendations for reducing truancy in PA. Attorneys from PSBA’s legal staff started attending Workgroup meetings in February 2010, in order to represent the interests of PSBA’s membership. In May of that year, the Workgroup issued its first annual report and recommendations, Truancy: A Call to Action. PSBA’s participation in this group continues.

The association has participated in other efforts to combat truancy including participation in meetings with magisterial district judges, and providing recommendations to PA Department of Education (PDE) prior to its 2015 release of the School Attendance Improvement and Truancy Reduction Toolkit. PSBA also had representation on the Joint State Government Commission’s Truancy Advisory Committee, which began its work in March 2015 pursuant to House Resolution 1032 of 2014.

Truancy reform is a part of PSBA’s Legislative Platform and Priorities and as such, PSBA has made significant efforts to work with members of the House and Senate to bring about the changes reflected in the new legislation. In June 2015, PSBA staff testified before the Senate Education Committee, emphasizing the need for many of the changes reflected in the new truancy legislation. Most recently, in 2016 the association released A Closer Look report on truancy reform, (www.psba.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/ACloserLook_truancy.pdf) which outlined and expressed support for many of the recommendations of the Advisory Committee.

PSBA’s consistent involvement on this issue is motivated by the possible positive long-term effects on students. As the truancy Closer Look report states “Attendance frequently is an important predictive factor in future academic success and even future interaction with the criminal justice system.” With the potential impact so great, it’s no wonder this issue is a priority for the association. B