I looked at the mom/client sitting next to me in the courtroom and gave her hand a squeeze.
She looked up and gave me a slight smile, our only communication since we did not speak the same language. I leaned over to the caseworker on her other side, who translated for us.
Just then, the judge’s voice got louder. “I don’t care what you need to do, you have to get those kids to school.”
Wow. A dad had just explained that he is a single dad, working two jobs and he is not home in the morning when his kids should be leaving for school. Being ornery teenagers, I suppose, they frequently stay home. And now dad is in truancy court.
The dad got up, looking deflated despite a 30-day continuance, and walked out of the courtroom.
We were next. The three of us approached the bench. We made our case and got a 60-day continuance to turn things around. But we got the same reprimand as the previous parent–next time their will be fines.
I got that family back on track with an IEP instead of a 504, and no more bus suspensions.
(author note: post originally written in 2016, updated today) I’m back at it…in the home stretch of the ABCs series. T is for truancy and the IEP process. We recently had a very unfortunate case in nearby Berks county (the county directly north of mine) that put the spotlight on school truancy. It is well known that truancy laws unfairly attack poor families and special needs kids. Right now, Berks County alone is averaging about 100 parents each year being jailed for truancy charges. Truancy is often a retaliation attack that school personnel participate in if a parent is advocating in the IEP process. So with all that in mind, here are some basics on truancy and what you can do to stay positive and not be fined or in jail.
Please note: School truancy and school refusal are two separate issues, but often closely related. Talk with your child’s behaviorist and team if you believe you have a school refusal issue with your child. Home bound, out of district placement and other option discussions may be warranted.
Truancy and truancy laws have been around forever. But, it wasn’t until No Child Left Behind in 2001 that schools were required to keep data on truancy and make reports. I personally have gone to truancy court with several clients as moral support (I am not an attorney!) or as an interpreter.
What is unfair is when special needs and IEP families are unfairly targeted. I also have seen undocumented families unfairly targeted and their children suspended from the bus, with the district full knowing that the parent cannot get a driver’s license. That is one tactic–if the child acts out, suspend them from the bus but not from school. The school knows that that child cannot get there without the bus, then they start racking up absences.
So, what can a family do about truancy?
- First, read all your school district policies and state codes on attendance. You need to stay well-informed on how many absences is considered truant, and what is considered an excused vs. unexcused absence.
- Keep good data. Either use the IEP organizer to note the days your child is absent or a kitchen calendar. Make notes about why they were absent.
- Follow the rules. Yes, life happens. But if you are required to call, email, provide a note within X number of days…do it. Cross your Ts and dot your Is.
- When you see patterns developing, investigate them. Why is your child absent? Do you have doctors’ notes? Is this school refusal? ALL behavior tells us something….so what is the behavior telling you?
- Be proactive and work with the school. Should you find yourself in truancy court at a later date, if you have all the data and documentation that shows that you have been working with the school and trying to get your child there, the judge is much more likely to work with you.
- Meet with the child’s guidance counselor or team leader to discuss issues. Ask about online options for when the child is sick. Ask for a school refusal evaluation if you think one is necessary. Document ALL incidents of bullying if that is the issue.
- Go with your gut. If you feel you are being unfairly targeted, investigate. Do a Right to Know request, and ask your district how many families have been referred to truancy court, and how many of those families were minority/special needs. If there is a discriminatory pattern, contact an attorney.
Truancy charges, now what?
- First, ask the school for a copy of your child’s attendance records. Make sure that they match yours and correct any differences.
- See if an attorney will at least do a free consult. See if there are free Legal Aid type services in your area for low income families, if you qualify. Call your state’s Protection and Advocacy group if you feel that your child is being treated differently than his/her non-disabled peers.
- Make sure that you have read up on your school‘s truancy and attendance policies, and that the school district has done their part to help you. Many states require that districts have a Truancy Prevention Program, so see if yours does and what it entails. The school bears some responsibility other than being there with the doors open.
- Read this from the state of Maine. While some of the policies are specific to that state, it gives you a lot of ideas to consider and pursue.
Wrapping up….it sucks. America’s families are already struggling financially, you’re working hard to earn a living for your family, and you’re raising a child with special needs. You have IEP hassles and stress, an extraordinary burden. And now you’re dealing with truancy. Take some deep breaths, and just start plugging away at it. I wish that parents didn’t have to deal with this, because the actual number of kids who are truant just because they don’t feel like going to school is actually very small. But hang in there and it will be over soon.
I never did find out what happened with that dad and I’ve thought about him and others often. I hope his story has a positive ending. I hope yours does too.