Parents, schools now have options for truancy notices

Paul Boerger

A truancy warning notice reported by a Mount Shasta High School parent late last year noted that the 4.0 grade point average student received the notice despite the fact that the student was out of school doing community service.

Mount Shasta High School Principal Jennifer McKinnon said state law requires that truancy notices go out when a student has three unexcused periods.

“The process is laid out by the state,” McKinnon said. “There are specific reasons for being excused. Community service is not a state reason to be out of school.”

McKinnon said among the acceptable excuses are sickness, court appearances, funerals and doctor’s appointment. According to the state guidelines, an additional reason is a “justifiable personal excuse” that can be defined in a variety of ways by local school boards.

As of Jan. 1, 2013 a new law, Assembly Bill 2616, allows school administrators to accept a personal justifiable excuse that a parent may request on their own authority.

Siskiyou Union High School District Superintendent Mike Matheson said he would look into the new law, but that currently the SUHSD takes a very narrow interpretation of personal justifiable excuse.

“We have been taking a straight forward position based on a Grand Jury report of some years ago that basically took the position we were not using the SARB process,” Matheson said. “They said schools were using the parent justified excuse too much. We eliminated the parent justified excuse.”

A concern for the parents of the straight A student was that the truancy notice may wind up in a student’s school record that could affect college admissions. Matheson said that is not the case.

“There is nothing in the truancy notice process that is going to impact an academic record,” Matheson said.

He noted that if a parent disagrees with a truancy notice, “There is a complaint process that ends with the school board.”

David Kopperud is chairperson of the State of California School Attendance Review Board, California Department of Education, which oversees and guides local SARBs.

Kopperud said the strict use of truancy notices is compounded by school money issues.

“It’s partially due to the fiscal crises. Even a one percent increase in attendance can save a teacher’s job,” Kopperud said. “The situation should ease up with the passage of Proposition 30 that provides money for schools.”

Kopperud said in addition to the new law, school boards have leeway in defining justifiable personal excusable absences.

“Local school boards can define justifiable personal excuses, but they should be uniform throughout the district,” Kopperud said. “Parents can request a justifiable personal excuse. We recommend parents put the request in writing. You can appeal a decision to the superintendent and the school board. You can write to the superintendent challenging the content of the attendance record.”

Kopperud said with the change in the law allowing principals to authorize an absence, automatic truancy notices are not necessarily required.

“You’re supposed to be selective in sending out truancy notices and screen out inappropriate cases,” Kopperud said. “The recent change in law gives school administrators some latitude in determining if an absence should be excused or not due to particular circumstances.”

Matheson suggested that for an extended absence, students take advantage of independent studies.

“If a student is going to be out for five or more days, they can request an independent studies program where they take their school work with them and turn it in when they return,” Matheson said.

Kopperud noted that there was opposition to AB 2616.

“A number of district attorneys were worried when AB 2616 was proposed that it could lead to an unequal enforcement of the compulsory education law because of differences in administrator opinion about when an absence from school should be excused,” Kopperud said. “For example, one administrator might say that an excuse due to transportation problems was justifiable, while another school administrator might say that the transportation excuse was not valid.”

Kopperud, however, quoted a fact sheet by Assemblymember Wilmer Amina Carter as the case for the change in the law: “Research shows that understanding and addressing the root causes of the attendance problem is more likely to bring a child back to school than a process that prioritizes the use of law enforcement or the criminal justice system,” Carter wrote. “In addition, studies have shown that children referred to the Juvenile Court are four times more likely to drop out of schools, such that juvenile court involvement may not be the best strategy in all truancy cases.”