Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
Once a week, I see truancy cases. Students and parents come in to my court to discuss why the student is missing school and what needs to change. In almost every case, there is more going on than a brief hearing can address. We work with schools to create plans to recover credits. The goal is always for the student to graduate or move on to the next grade level.
The state of Texas defines truant conduct as a student who fails to attend school on 10 or more days or parts of days within a six-month period in the same school year. Skipping classes, being routinely late to first period and full days missed all count the same. If a student misses first period ten times in a six-month period, it's the same as if they missed ten full days of instruction. The goal of the law, of course, is to keep students in school. Parents are responsible for their child's attendance. Generally speaking, in our court, if a middle schooler comes in with 10+ days of unexcused absences, the parent is charged with "parent contributing" and faces fines and has their own disposition. Students under the age of 11 are not charged with truancy. Only the parent is seen in these cases.
Remedial orders give us a range of options for both parent and student. Students are always required to have no further unexcused absences, make up hours of work and community service hours. Often, we’ll add counseling and self-improvement classes as necessary. We can require drug testing if needed. Aside from court costs, the only real punishment we have is suspending a driver’s license. Parents have guidelines, as well. They must check in with the school on a weekly basis to verify attendance. They’re given instructions on enforcing bedtimes and verifying completion of homework. We will often add parenting classes or counseling, too. Depending on the success of the student, parents may have their cases dismissed and/or their fines reduced.
Ideally, the measures that schools take to deal with absenteeism keep students out of court. Those measures require that schools, families and students take the issue seriously and act as quickly as possible. By the time a chronically absent student is in high school a great deal of damage has been done. That student has lost out on numerous hours of instruction and socialization. The court doesn’t charge students under the age of 11 with truant conduct, only their parents. By waiting until this age, we allow younger students to miss out on programs that could address their issues early on.
Many times, those issues, the root cause of a student’s truant behavior, are barely addressed. It could be anything from bullying, a learning disability, mental or physical health issues, abuse and neglect or some combination of any or all. In eastern Williamson county these issues are exacerbated by a true lack of resources. It takes time and money to fund volunteer programs to teach parenting or anger management classes. Counselors are in short supply and often out of reach of families whose insurance, if they even have it, provides little coverage. Bluebonnet Trails MHMR has a long waiting list and massive bureaucracy. They are often the only choice for low income families but getting services through them is a challenge since they see so many people across the county. Then there’s the issue of transportation. How do we get kids to programs to help them that are elsewhere in the county? Should the court require a Taylor ISD student to go to a program in Round Rock or Georgetown? If so, how are they going to get there if the court has suspended their license and their parents work?
Ironically, the solution to these issues is education. The community needs to understand how truancy affects them. Students who are chronically absent are at higher risk for dropping out. Without a high school diploma, they tend to be lower wage earners as they enter the work force. The national average wage for a high school dropout is $553. Their unemployment rate is 5.6%. If we want our communities to thrive and grow, we need an educated work force. Funding community resources for these students and their families benefits the entire community.
School’s get state monies tied to their attendance records. A group called Missing School Matters has shown that “reducing absences by 3 days per student can save Central Texas schools $34,000,000”. More students in class at every level means more money for the school. Starting good attendance habits as early as Pre-K and Kindergarten can have long-term results. Even something as simple as a flu shot can reduce the absentee rate.
Parents need to understand the importance of ensuring that their child is in school. If work, housing transportation or health issues arise, don’t wait to talk to the school until after your student has missed multiple days. Ask for help and communicate. If you take school attendance seriously, even in Pre-K, you let your child know that it’s important.
Students need to understand they should treat school as their job. Just like their parents go to work every day to earn an income, they need to go to school every day in order to succeed. It may be tempting to take a day off when you’re confused and overwhelmed, but it won’t get any easier to catch up if you don’t go to school. If you’re having trouble, let your teachers know, let your administrators know, let your parents know as soon as possible.
Educators need to be proactive in identifying at risk students and leveraging resources to help. We need their voices to make the case for increased funding for school counselors and case managers, for community involvement and inventive solutions to learning disabilities, mental health and more.
Let’s all remember:
• We need to get past blaming parents and instead help them get their children to school.
• We need to use community resources – mental and medical health providers, social workers and others – to address the problems contributing to chronic absence.
• We need to provide the right incentives and an engaging curriculum that will bring students to school.
• We need to make sure that every child has an opportunity to learn and that means making sure they come to school regularly.
Truancy is more than just missing or skipping school. It can have a profound effect on a student’s future. We need to take that seriously and do whatever we can to help.