Truancy Policy Meets Resistance In Some Schools

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(Host) Most educators agree that truancy is a serious issue. Kids who miss a lot of school are less likely to graduate, and chronic absence can point to other problems in a child’s life.

But as VPR’s Susan Keese reports, efforts to create uniform truancy policies are meeting resistance in one corner of Vermont.

(Keese) The days when no one cared if kids skipped school for hunting season or to help with sugaring are gone.

School attendance is now compulsory in Vermont between the ages of 6 and 16.

Vermont Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca says it’s important not to let any student fall through the cracks.

(Vilaseca) "If a student’s missing a lot of school, especially young children, that will have an impact on their learning for the rest of their educational career."

(Keese) And in recent years schools have worked out procedures for dealing with absences.

Most begin with a teacher calling a parent. Eventually, law enforcement can be called, along with social service agencies and the courts.

State’s attorneys are responsible for enforcing attendance laws.

But Vilaseca says local prosecutors complain that it’s hard to jump in when each school has different guidelines for handling attendance problems.

(Vilaseca) "And what they said to us was, ‘You guys need to come up with a countywide truancy policy because we don’t know what you’ve done to intervene and to support families during this process.’"

(Keese) In 2009 the Vermont Legislature asked Vilaseca to work with superintendents to create uniform countywide policies.

In a report to lawmakers this month, Vilaseca says that’s happened – except in the district that includes Bellows Falls Union High School, where several schools are refusing to comply.

(Harpster) "And in fact we had one parent pull their child out of the district because of this."

(Keese) Johanna Harpster is the superintendent of the district. She says the school boards in the district were troubled that the Vermont Department of Children and Families would be called after only 15 days.

(Harpster) "That was the concern, that if we brought DCF in early to this process, there would be the threat of children being removed from the home."

(Keese) The Grafton-Athens school refused to even consider changing its truancy policy.

Grafton school board chair Edward Bank calls it too "dictatorial" for a small school where families know each other well.

(Bank) "We felt that bringing in another agency, particularly if we know the family situation, creates ill will, and is totally unnecessary. And we feel that the policy left us no discretion whatsoever."

(Keese) Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca has given the dissenting schools until May 1 to come into compliance with the mandate.

He notes that while families who ignore truancy laws can be taken to court or fined up to $1,000, he has no such recourse with school districts.

He says he could withhold money, but that would hurt the children who are in school.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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