House Bill 410, passed in December 2016 in the Ohio Legislature, made sweeping reforms in the state’s truancy laws.
The bill provides a consistent policy across the state, gives schools ways to discover why a student is truant and takes away the threat of criminal charges resulting from a student’s truancy.
The goal is to reduce chronic absenteeism to 5% or less.
One thing is for certain, House Bill 410 has resulted in a mountain of extra work for Ohio school districts.
“Our IT department built a program for us, so it keeps track of hours that kids are truant from school,” said Jill Ackerman, superintendent of Lima schools. “Then when they reach a certain threshold, the threshold by law, it automatically will generate a letter that the secretaries can then send off to the parents that say that the student has reached the number of excessive amount of hours of absence, even if it’s excused, or unexcused.”
Along with the letter comes a succession of steps for the student who is chronically absent from school.
“It’s kind of like a warning letter, and then when it goes beyond to the next threshold, then it generates a letter that will require the parent to come in with the child,” Ackerman said. “They will put together an attendance plan to try to help with getting the kid to school. Beyond that, we have to track that and monitor that for so long, and then eventually we’re able to file truancy charges.”
It means more work for administrators, said Aaron Rex, superintendent of Wapakoneta schools.
“When House Bill 410 was put into place, what it did was create a lot more work for our secretaries and our principals,” he said. “Our hands are kind of tied, and there’s a lot more interventions that take place, which makes the process take a lot longer, so we send a lot of letters to kids and families.”
It sometimes raises concerns for parents, said Scott Mangas, superintendent of Ottoville schools.
“I’ve actually had parents that have called because they have received a letter,” he said. “I explain it to them that no matter who they are, what it is, if they go over X amount of hours, and I think it’s 38 hours that they’ve missed school, then they will get a letter. I just explain that to them, and there’s different trigger dates. It automatically kicks to my secretary when I have a student who has met a trigger date — you’re looking at 38 in a month and it’s 65 or more in a school year, so when they meet those trigger dates or thresholds, we send out the letter.”
Positives and negatives
While the process is arduous, there is a positive impact the law has on school districts.
“I guess the positive is that it opens up those lines of communication because you’re sending more letters. You’re making more phone calls because you’re required to,” Rex said.
The flip side is you’re freaking out the parents, he said.
“So let’s say you have a child who misses 38 hours so far up in the school year and maybe they’re dealing with an illness, so you have a child who is out because they have a long-term illness,” Rex said. “You still have to send them a letter. So you can imagine you get this letter, and your child is sick and then you’re like, ‘The school isn’t very understanding; my child has this illness, and now you’re sending me this letter.’”
The system doesn’t distinguish between excused or unexcused absences.
“The only problem that we would have is what House Bill 410 changed when they make us send a letter whether it’s excused or unexcused because we have students who, let’s say, have their tonsils out or surgery of some sort where it’s a legit excuse,” Mangas said. “We still have to send a letter if they meet the necessary hours for excessive absences. So even though the kid is laying at home after surgery, it puts us in a bad situation that we’re sending the parents a letter that says your child has missed X amount of days, and it’s a letter going home to a parent that’s probably going through a situation already. I don’t like that part of it.”
Dragging kids back into school
Getting kids with excessive absences to come to school can take a great deal of effort by the schools.
“We had some door hangers made up by our graphic arts department, so if they go out to a house and nobody’s there, they’re able to hang the door hanger, which kind of has those rules for attendance on it for the parents,” Ackerman said. “Yeah, we do lots and lots of home visits. We’ll send out the principal, school resource officer, guidance counselor, people are always running out. The (Closing the Achievement Gap) people will make runs out. We’re always running out to homes to check up on kids all of the time, trying to figure out why they’re not here,” Ackerman said.
It means home visits in Wapakoneta too.
“Our high school, middle school, elementary principals, they’ll go to people’s houses and check on them,” Rex said. “We’ll have parents call us and ask us to come to their house. We’ve done that.
“Parents will say, ‘I can’t get my child out of bed’ or ‘My child is really upset,’ and so that’s happened this year multiple times where our staff, administration, guidance counselors will go to people’s houses and talk with kids and bring them to school. We do have one resource officer for 3,300 kids, which makes it a little hard, but he does go out. He’ll go out and talk to kids and get them to come to school. Sometimes it’s a matter of just putting somebody on the phone and whether it’s ‘We really want you here’ or it’s maybe a little bit harder of a message like ‘You need to be here’ those conversations take place.”
On the report card
Truancy also affects schools’ state report cards.
“It’s very disruptive because they’re missing academic time, and then it’s also an indicator on the (state) grade card, so if we don’t meet a certain threshold for attendance then we get dinged on that too, so it’s extremely disruptive,” Ackerman said.
There’s only so much schools can do about truancy, Ackerman said.
“We can only do what we can do,” Ackerman said. “We don’t have the authority to punish kids or parents, so there’s really never been any real teeth in truancy, so it’s been a problem for as long as I’ve been here. I think people learned a long time ago that there really wasn’t a hammer that’s going to fall when you don’t send your kid to school.”
Rewards for perfect attendance
Many schools have tried to reward students with perfect attendance.
“We have a car at the high school that you can win if you’re able to make that (perfect) attendance,” Ackerman said. “They’ll do celebrations quarterly based on grades and based on attendance. We give a lot of RTA bus passes away because transportation will be an issue, especially at the high school level for kids. They do a lot of reward parties.”
Wapakoneta also rewards perfect attendance.
“At the high school, if you have perfect attendance and you don’t miss one day over the course of the year, then you’re exempt from taking all of your final exams,” Rex said. “That may not sound like a big deal, but it really is. Kids work really hard to never miss days. I, for one, have a senior, and she will not miss school for any reason because she wants to make sure that she has perfect attendance so she’s exempt from exams.”
They also give out interim rewards, he said.
“Redskin Rewards are given out at the end of every nine weeks, and part of that is attendance, and so that’s maybe a shorter stick to measure because it’s every nine weeks and not at the end of the year,” Rex said. “Some of the things we do at the end of nine weeks, if you have perfect attendance and you meet like five or six other requirements you may get, we do ice cream for rewards. We’ve taken kids bowling. We have a movie day. We try to do different things and include rewarding kids for attendance. I don’t know that we do much more than that because it’s just kind of an expectation that you’re supposed to come to school. You just are.”
At Ottoville, students are just expected to attend.
“I don’t think we do anything (extra),” Mangas said. “I think it’s the fact that it starts with our parents. We’ve got really good parents in Ottoville. They care about their kid’s education, and they get them here. In my 19 years at Ottoville, it’s always been that way. We’ve always had great attendance, and I always say it goes back to the parents.”
Reach Sam Shriver at 567-242-0409.