According to some school administrators, we’re entering truancy season -- the time when schools start taking action on students who have racked up too many missed days.
But deciding how many missed days are punishable and what action is taken varies from district to district. Though, the next school year will bring additional guidance in the form of a new law.
Act 138 of 2016 was signed by Gov. Tom Wolf in November and will go into effect with the 2017-18 school year. It gives clearer guidelines for truancy standards and penalties.
Current Pennsylvania law stipulates that residents under the age of 18 must attend school and it sets out maximum penalties if they don’t. But it leaves many of the details to be defined by schools and district magistrates.
State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre County) said the vagaries of the law lead to widely different approaches to dealing with students who miss class.
“In some places, parents were being put in jail after a minimal amount of occurrences,” Benninghoff said. “In other places, schools were just being frustrated because children were out of school more than they were in school.”
Benninghoff formed a taskforce to review the law and make recommendations. The result of the group’s work was crafted into the new truancy law.
“The goal was not to fix a complicated, convoluted truancy law with a more complicated, convoluted truancy law,” Benninghoff said. “Our goal was to really come up with a better overall care plan of corrective actions.”
Under the new law, the state had a clear definition of truancy -- for the first time.
The law states a child is truant after racking up three unexcused absences in a school year. They are considered chronically truant after six absences.
The definitions help to set the framework, but Benninghoff said the real focus of the law is what happens after those milestones are reached.
After three unexcused absences, schools must send home a notice outlining the next steps, including the possibility of fines and other penalties. Then after the sixth missed day, the parents or guardians must be called in for a “school attendance improvement conference.”
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association was part of the panel that helped write the new law. The association was interested in making sure school administrators took a more student-centered approach that looked at why a student was absent.
“So it’s less punitive and more looking at the student’s issues and what’s going on with an individual student, rather than having a one-size-fits-all penalty for truancy across the board,” said Steven Robinson, spokesman for the School Boards Association.
Lori Delale-O’Connor, associate director of research and development at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Urban Education, said student-centered approaches to solving truancy are growing in popularity.
But she said schools can’t effectively intervene until they know how to help and they won’t know how to help until they understand the root of the problem.
“They can be things like bullying,” she said. “They could be things like, perhaps issues with nutrition at home, issues like having to provide childcare or younger sibling care. Issues that are connected with poverty.”
Delale-O’Connor said it’s not the school’s responsibility to build a strong family, but it is the schools responsibility to build strong relationships with families.
Under the new law, the “school attendance improvement conference” must result in a written plan. Robinson said by mandating the creation of the plan, schools no longer will be able to just send the student or parent to court.
“If a student and family is showing signs of improvement, there’s greater flexibility in terms of using penalties,” Robinson said. “And penalties should usually be seen as a last effort.”
Those plans must keep the child in school rather than relying on suspensions and all court action is put on hold until the conference is held.
That might seem obvious, but it is not the practice in every district.
Quaker Valley School District police officer Aaron Vanatta said his district already uses a similar system. The district draws up what it calls a truancy elimination plan with the student and their parents.
“You know, setting some goals and guidelines,” Vanatta said. “It could be anything from having the kid set an alarm, to making them ride the bus instead of getting some other mode of transportation to school.”
The district also has a student jury that can help build a plan, but it’s unclear if the law would allow for that type of student-run solution.
When all else fails, there is still the possibility of sending the matter to the district magistrate.
“A lot of times all it takes is getting just getting in front of the judge and getting that warning from the judge and they get back on the right track,” Vanatta said.
Under the current law, it’s the parents who are fined or jailed if the student is under the age of 13. The new law increases that age to 15.
Both laws allow for fines and jail time if parents refuse to pay or complete community service. However, because the current law is so vague, it’s unclear if it forces a district judge to levy a $300 fine or if that is just an option.
The new law makes it clear that judges have other options.
District Magistrate Kevin Cooper sees more truancy cases than any other judge in Allegheny County. His office in Homewood receives cases from Westinghouse High School and several elementary and middle schools. This time of year he hears about 30 cases a week.
Since taking office a year ago, the former teacher has interpreted the law in a way that allows him some flexibility. He knows it is difficult for some teens to take instruction or guidance from parents and other authority figures. So he’ll often give them 30 or 60 days to prove they can get themselves back into the classroom.
“Let’s not miss any school, let’s not be tardy and let’s see how that works out for you,” Cooper said, repeating what he tells truant students who pass through his courtroom. “If you can take this warning seriously, then we can put this behind us and move forward.”
Cooper said he knows many of the students and parents in his neighborhoods don’t have the money to pay fines and he doesn’t want to send them to jail. So he hands out community service hours and tries to get students into free programs that might address the root problem.
Cooper said he finds the threat to take away a driver’s license is also a good way to get a teen on the right track.
Both the current and the new law allow for the suspension of driving privileges, but the new law leaves it up to the judge as to when it can be reinstated.
Though he’s the one doling out punishments these days, Cooper said he wasn’t always the perfect student.
“Sometimes we get certain breaks and we don’t know why,” he said. “You know, it just happens. And I’m the one sometimes that tries to give these kids a break. I’m hoping that when they get an opportunity and are given a break that they take full advantage of it.”
Although many districts already have staff in place to manage the flow of truancy conferences with parents, others might have to bring on more staff or reallocate staff. Delale-O’Connor said maybe the new law will help school boards argue for more funding.