Absences alarm AASD leaders

Illegal absences of students are alarming Altoona Area administrators.

Introducing a formal truancy elimination policy and hiring an attendance officer are the administration’s recommended solutions.

Eighth grade Principal Brad Hatch, a member of an administrative committee focused on eliminating truancy, informed the school board this week of the scope of the problem.

This school year, there were 1,358 students age 17 or younger with three or more unexcused school absences. Their families were served with a notice that they can be prosecuted for violating the state’s compulsory attendance law. And of those families, more than 420 were prosecuted.

If truancy problems continue, dropouts are sure to follow, Hatch said.

“That has a negative impact on our community, not just our school system,” he said.

Hatch said students’ reasons for truancy vary. What they tell him is: “‘I just don’t like school,’ social reasons with other students, or family issues outside of school that makes school the least of their worries.”

And parents in many cases feel helpless, he said.

“I hear more and more from parents. Parents are very frustrated- ‘I can’t get my kid to school,’ what do I do?,” he said.

Parents prosecuted in Pennsylvania for truant children can face fines, required attendance at a parenting education course or performing community service or even up to five days in jail.

A Reading woman died June 7 while she was jailed for truancy charges in Berks County Prison. Eileen DiNino, a 55-year-old mother of seven, died of undetermined cause while serving a 48-hour sentence for not paying fines a magisterial district judge imposed following her sons’ absences from school.

State senators Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, and Judy Schwank, D-Berks, on Friday announced a proposal following DiNino’s death that includes eliminating the possibility that a parent can be jailed for failing to pay fines associated with truancy.

The bill also calls for increased truancy prevention measures by districts.

“Referring a truancy case to a magisterial district judge should be the last resort,” a press release from Greenleaf stated.

At Altoona Area, a school police services officer spends one day per week at the magistrate’s office simply dealing with prosecution for compulsory attendance violations, Hatch said.

The district’s postage costs for sending truancy notices was $8,799 this year. Educationally, truancy consumes time of school personnel who attend hearings, make home visits, track down students and handle phone calls.

Truancy is not all parents’ responsibility, Hatch said.

“The manpower we are losing is because our current approach is very much reactive and punitive as opposed to proactive and preventive,” he said.

A number of truancy hearings has revealed to district legal counsel, Andrews & Beard Law Offices, that the district is not in compliance with the state’s school code mandate to employ one or more persons for enforcing compulsory school attendance laws.

Truancy response duties are currently shared by principals, police services and attendance personnel, Hatch said.

“We are out of compliance with state mandates by not employing an identifiable officer,” he said.

Hatch and a committee of administrators have recommended that the board hire a part-time officer who would work 20 hours per week. The officer would develop a program for identifying students with attendance issues and work with families to eliminate truancy issues before they start.

The administration’s committee on truancy had other recommendations for the board, as well.

“Currently, we do not implement a formal truancy elimination plan, which is a recommendation of the state,” Hatch said.

However, the district has interventions through its student assistance program and several local agencies.

The school’s student assistance team, comprised of school staff and behavioral health liaisons from UPMC Altoona, serves to identify students with problems by regular communication with teachers.

“Get there early and the problem can be fixed,” said Ernie Podrasky, a director of UPMC behavioral health services.

The concept behind the student assistance program, which all Pennsylvania school districts have under state law, is to address the growing problem of suicide and drug abuse, Podrasky said, but truancy could be a related issue that is prevented.

The district’s responsibility for eliminating truancy has become complicated by the increasing popularity of cyber charter schools, Hatch said.

“We have a number of students who fall within a cyber charter school jurisdiction but are still living in the district. An issue arising from hearings was that these students withdrew from their cyber program but never re-enrolled with the district,” he said.

“We can’t just put the onus on the parent to make sure they are re-enrolled. We have to take a proactive approach to making sure we identify students living in the district but not attending an approved educational setting.”