OEA report: Truancy, chronic absenteeism soaring in Kentucky schools, with worst rates in eastern Kentucky; school officials tell the agency the state's new juvenile justice law has increased absences
Lexington Herald Leader, Sept. 24, 2017
Why aren’t your kids in school? Kentucky has a truancy problem. See how bad it is.
BY VALARIE HONEYCUTT SPEARS
Kentucky parents, your kids have a serious school attendance problem.
Consider this your collective note from the principal’s office. And then consider these astounding stats:
▪ In the 2015-2016 school year, more than 60 percent of Kentucky students were truant, and approximately 40 percent of students met the definition for being habitually truant, according to a recent Kentucky Office of Education Accountability study. Under Kentucky law, a student with three unexcused absences in a school year is considered truant. Under the law, a student who has been tardy without a valid excuse on three or more days, is also considered truant. Any student who has been reported as a truant two or more times is a habitual truant, a classification that can trigger a Kentucky school district to file a complaint with the state court system.
▪ In Lexington, habitual truant complaints have been filed through the state Administrative Office of the Courts against 413 students so far in 2017, four more than in all of 2016, according to state records. That’s up from 2014, when habitual truant complaints were filed against 369 juveniles.
▪ Kentucky school districts, including Fayette County, have an increasing problem with chronic absenteeism, defined as a student missing 17.4 days in a school year for any reason. Several groups at the local and state level are currently working to come up with ways of addressing chronic absenteeism. In Fayette County, the rate of chronic absenteeism has risen from 14.6 percent in 2011-2012 to 15.2 percent in 2015-2016, according to the report.
▪ The only nationwide comparison of chronic absenteeism was conducted in 2013-14. Compared to seven surrounding states, Kentucky had the second highest rate of chronic absenteeism overall and was first in the rate of chronic absenteeism at the high school level, third highest for elementary, and second highest for middle school.
▪ Kentucky’s highest rates of chronic absenteeism are concentrated in Eastern Kentucky — where average rates of absenteeism exceed 30 percent in some cases — and in Jefferson County, the state report said.
School districts generally decide on their own what to do in the case of unexcused absences and tardies.
In Fayette County, said district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall. “We are proactive in our communication, calling families each day their child is absent, and mailing letters home after three, six and nine unexcused absences or tardies. However, we certainly don’t wait until a child is classified as truant to begin working with families and community agencies.”
Each school district also makes its own decision on when to file complaints in the courts involving kids who are habitually truant.
Fayette County school officials don’t file complaints against every child who has six unexcused absences, said J. R. Hopson, juvenile services manager for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. “They take it on a case-by-case basis.”
Fayette County Pupil Personnel Director Steve Hill said that the school district usually does not file a complaint until a student reaches 12 unexcused absences, unless a student has been habitually truant for multiple years. “Our main reason for not filing at 6 unexcused absences is to exhaust all possible interventions to assist the students and families prior to going the legal route. Our greatest desire is to have our students attend school everyday.,” Hill said.
Because so many Kentucky students are classified as truant, the OEA report suggested that state policymakers might revise truancy definitions under the law so that schools and districts can concentrate on helping students who are more likely to suffer “the negative consequences of poor attendance.”
On statewide test scores, grade point averages and the ACT test, “educational performance becomes negative for students reaching 10 or more absences,” the report said.
A Fayette County-based group will soon be launching a public service campaign, complete with posters drawn by kids, aimed at curbing Fayette’s problem with chronic absenteeism, said Liz Moreland, a coordinator for that Regional Interagency Council.
“Although the increase in chronic absenteeism is very small, just 0.6 percent over five years, our district is concerned any time the data reflects students not being in the classroom,” said Deffendall.
“When students miss school, regardless of the reason, they also miss out on the engaging and challenging lessons and activities our teachers have prepared. Research has proven that regular attendance is a key indicator for increased student achievement, so we want our students to be in school as much as they possibly can,” Deffendall said. “That said, we understand that it is sometimes necessary for students to miss school and we work in partnership with our families to excuse absences and tardies as appropriate.”
Statewide data shows that coming from a low-income family or receiving special education services, can make a student more likely to be chronically absent, the OEA report said. Those cases can be complex.
Mandy Sommer, a parent from Berea, said she is concerned about how the state’s truancy policies affect children who receive special education services or who have medical or mental health issues. She said she thinks the law should be rewritten so that a single statement from a physician could be submitted to address chronic medical issues, rather than a doctor’s note for every absence.
Sommer said her middle-school-age son has an anxiety-based disorder, is prone to panic attacks that require him to be out of the classroom, but don’t always require a doctor’s visit. Sommer said she received phone calls and letters from the school district last year, and was even threatened with court action because her son didn’t have a doctor’s note each time he missed school.
She said his grades had not been affected — he had a 3.9 grade point average last year — but when he had five unexcused absences, she received a letter saying, “we were going to have to appear in court to discuss his truancy.” Sommer said the situation finally eased, but only because the school year ended.
Steve Evans, Assistant Director of Pupil Personnel in Madison County, provided the Herald-Leader with what he called “a final notice letter” when parents have nine unexcused absences that says “unless your child’s attendance improves, charges may be filed against you in Madison County District or Family Court.”
“We do everything within our power to avoid court referrals,” said Evans. “We make phone calls to parents, schedule parent meetings, make home visits, and engage our family resource centers to determine what needs can be met to help the parents get their students to school. Filing truancy is our last step in trying to ensure our students get the education they need and deserve.”
In Fayette County, parents and guardians can write up to 10 excused absence notes for their children’s illnesses each school year, and Fayette County school officials accept unlimited medical doctor’s excuses, according to the letter sent by the Fayette school district to families about truant children.
Why are so many Kentucky students missing school?
Approximately 55 percent of Kentucky school officials who responded to a survey, according to the OEA report, said they thought that a 2014 state juvenile justice reform law had increased absences.
Under the new law, when school districts file truancy complaints against students, eligible students have more opportunities to stay out of court. They can enter pre-court diversion programs up to three times by working with officials within the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Before that law, eligible juvenile offenders, including truants, could only enter diversion programs twice before they were sent to face a family court judge.
Once a complaint is filed by a school district, students and their families have an initial interview with juvenile services workers and if eligible, they are given options for a diversion program that can help keep them out of court., said Hopson, the state juvenile official.
The majority of district officials in 173 school districts responding to a survey, the OEA report said, indicated a state law passed in 2013 raising the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 18, had also increased the truancy problem. Consistent with the change in state law, Fayette County Public Schools increased the drop out age from 16 to 18 in the fall of 2015.
“Certainly that change has had an impact on our chronic absenteeism rates,” said Deffendall. “When students are disengaged they stop coming to school, regardless of whether they officially drop out. ...We are excited to be moving ahead on plans to open a Dropout Prevention and Re-engagement Academy this school year to provide another pathway to success for students who have fallen behind in school. ... the Academy will target many students who would previously have been classified as truant or chronically absent.”