The Commonwealth’s Department of Education recently issued a Basic Education Circular (BEC) on the topic of compulsory attendance and truancy elimination plans. The new guidance comes at a time when pupil attendance rates are being subjected to greater scrutiny. The No Child Left Behind Act requires school districts to measurably increase student achievement, but also requires districts to show that they are making significant progress in increasing pupil attendance rates because of the links between regular student attendance achievement.
PDE’s recent BEC was issued on August 8, 2006 and will expire on June 20, 2011 unless renewed by the Department. It was produced in response to the work of the State-wide Task Force on School Attendance Truancy Reduction. In summary, the BEC restates the state law requirements for enforcing pupil attendance, provides guidance in reducing truancy, and outlines a proposed truancy policy and program which PDE recommends that districts adopt. The full language of the BEC, as well as attachments referred to herein, can be found at the Department’s website.
The BEC reiterates that the School Code mandates that all children of beginner age through the age of 17 must regularly attend school, with the exception of homeschooled students, trade school students and other students who meet certain work or employment criteria. School boards must adopt written policies governing pupil absences, and absences should be treated as unlawful until a district receives a written excuse explaining the reason for any absence. Schools may excuse a maximum of ten cumulative days of absence each school year, with any absences beyond that number requiring written excuse from a physician. After any child has accumulated three or more unexcused absences, a teacher or school official is required to report such child to the district’s central administration so that the matter may be dealt with appropriately.
The BEC acknowledges that parents and families are the first and best resources for a district in eliminating truancy and recommends that families be provided a copy of the district’s attendance policy at the beginning of each school year or upon enrollment for any new enrollees. The BEC stresses that a district’s attendance policy should be easily readable and, if necessary, translated so that non-English speaking parents can understand its provisions. PDE recommends having parents sign a sheet indicating their receipt and understanding of the district’s attendance policy.
The BEC also recites PDE’s recommended policy for school districts in curtailing truancy. While the BEC recommends that legal proceedings with magistrates be held until after more than three unlawful absences have been accumulated, it also stresses that action should be taken early with the student and parents. After either a first or second unlawful absence, PDE recommends a written notice be sent to parents which states that an unlawful absence has occurred and sets forth the legal penalties for truancy while offering specific contact personnel for parents who wish to seek aid in increasing student attendance. Upon a child’s third unlawful absence, PDE recommends that a notice be sent to parents or guardians by certified mail providing official notice of the third illegal absence. This notice should also reiterate the legal consequences of truancy and should prompt the scheduling of a conference with school officials to discuss a Truancy Elimination Plan (TEP). The BEC contemplates such a conference being convened between school officials, the parent or guardian and student to discuss issues such as “the appropriateness of the child’s educational environment, current academic difficulties, physical or behavioral health issues, and family/environment concerns.” If the conference is able to successfully address those issues, it is contemplated that the parties draft and sign a Truancy Elimination Plan agreeable to the school representative, the child and the parents or guardian. Such a Plan might include “accessing academic and social/health supports from the school and community organizations, and outline family/parent and student responsibilities, and levels of performance monitoring that include awards and consequences.”
The BEC goes on to state that after a TEP is signed, or if one cannot be reached between the parties, any further illegal absences by the student should be met with an official notice of unlawful absence from the school notifying the parent and child of the additional unlawful absence and the district’s intention to file a citation with the Magistrate. The BEC recommends that for children under the age of thirteen who are habitually truant (i.e., those who are absent for more than three school days following a first notice of truancy given after a child’s third unlawful absence), they should not only be referred to the local magistrate, but also referred to the local County Children and Youth Agency for services, which may include adjudication of dependency or other family issues. The BEC recommends that children who have attained the age of thirteen or over and who are habitually truant may, but need not be, referred to the local county agency or juvenile court along with the filing of any magisterial proceedings.
The Department has included at its website PDF documents containing a sample Truancy Elimination Plan (TEP) and directions to complete such Plan. The form Plan lists the accumulated dates of unlawful absences, the reasons for the absences, and the actions that were taken. It calls on the parties to assess the reasons why the absences occurred to determine the solutions for the absences, the consequences for non-compliance and the benefits for compliance. PDE’s on-line guidance also includes sample letters which school districts can send to parents following the first, second and third unlawful absence.
In short, the BEC represents an effort to put in place a standardized process followed by school districts in addressing attendance issues. Given the increased importance in maintaining student attendance rates, it may be that at some point, apart from the benchmarks contained in the No Child Left Behind Act, a district‘s efforts to increase student attendance may be measured by reference to PDE’s recommended guidelines. To that end, we would recommend that you review the BEC to see whether or not your district is presently in compliance, or to determine what would be necessary to comply with the Department’s recommendations regarding notices and truancy elimination plans. In the event that you have any additional questions about any of the matters raised in the BEC, please feel free to contact one of our school attorneys for further clarification.