Schools join justice system to tackle chronic absenteeism
(Okla.) School districts across the country are increasingly turning to law enforcement and local district attorneys to address chronic student absences.
In Missouri, some schools are referring students who are absent too often to local law enforcement, who then visit the children’s homes to educate parents about the importance of getting their kids to school.
Meanwhile, one Oklahoma district recently announced a partnership with the local District Attorney’s office to issue fines of up to $250 to parents whose children miss an excessive number of days.
One District Attorney’s office in Louisiana took things a step further in June, issuing nearly 20 bench warrants as a last resort for parents and guardians who failed to show up for their Truancy Court date.
Jarod Mendenhall, superintendent of Muskogee Public Schools–located about 50 miles Southeast of Tulsa–said the plan was adopted as a result of low student attendance rates last year. The district’s high school, for instance, had an 89 percent attendance rate, while those in neighboring districts had rates of 93 percent or more.
“We understand as educators that students must be in school every day to obtain the proper skills needed to be successful academically,” Mendenhall said in a statement. “Therefore, student attendance has become one of our highest priorities for the 2018-2019 school year.”
Policymakers at the state and local levels have increasingly begun working to improve attendance rates–prompted by research linking positive attendance to short- and long-term academic outcomes, as well as improved health outcomes and lifetime earnings.
Many states have committed to reducing chronic absenteeism rates in compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Numerous districts have adopted different intervention policies to address the root causes of student attendance issues.
Some school and district leaders are offering incentives such as bicycles or other prizes to children when their attendance improves, while others provide on-site food pantries, health clinics, school supplies and laundry services.
In Caddo Parish, Louisiana, District Attorney James Stewart Sr. told local reporters that his office had attempted to intervene prior to issuing bench warrants by aiding families struggling to find reliable transportation, provide students with clean school uniforms, or deal with drug or mental health problems in the home. Often times that was enough to improve attendance–but that wasn’t always the case.
Five of the children whose parents received warrants to report to a judge had missed 100 or more days of class during the 2017-18 school year.
Mendenhall said that in his district, the Muskogee County District Attorney’s office will also take steps to first warn parents or guardians who are failing to regularly get their children to class.
After four absences within a four-week period, a will be sent letter home notifying families of the consequences of failing to comply with Oklahoma’s compulsory attendance laws. If the student continues to miss school, a fine will be issued ranging from $25 for a first offence to $250 for three or more offences.
Meanwhile, Buchanan County Prosecuting Attorney Dwight Scroggins credits his office’s partnership with the St. Joseph School District with playing a major role in improving attendance rates.
The Missouri district saw a spikes in attendance rates among students referred to the "Knock and Talk" program, through which prosecutors send a letter to parents outlining the importance of attendance and tips to establishing a routine to make sure kids get up for school.
If the student continues to regularly be absent, an officer will visit the family to see why the child has missed so much school.
Last school year, 767 students from the St. Joseph School District were referred to the program, Scroggins told local reporters. In more than 360 cases, an officer was able to speak with the parents or student.
The average rate of attendance for the submitted students at the time of referral was 76 percent, according to Scroggins, and by the end of the school year, their attendance rate averaged 85 percent.