New Legislation Attempts to Deal with Chronic Absenteeism

three friends having coffeeThe Connecticut General Assembly is poised to act on a bill entitled “An Act Concerning Chronic Absenteeism.” This legislation requires a board of education to do two things: (1) establish a district school attendance review team when 10% or more of the district’s students (or 15% or more of the students of a single school) are chronically absent — defined as 18 or more unexcused absences; and (2) annually report the number of chronically absent students in its strategic school profile report. Meeting at least on a monthly basis, the school attendance review team is responsible for “reviewing the cases of chronically absent children, discussing school interventions and community referrals for such children and making any additional recommendations for such children and their families.”

Despite strong support from members of the state legislature’s Education Committee, opponents of the bill claim that it adds another level of unneeded bureaucracy, noting that many schools with high rates of unexcused absenteeism are already taking systemic approaches.

They also question the efficacy of putting the onus on school districts without also creating and funding an array of effective community based programs and interventions to help school districts address the causes of chronic absenteeism.

Current state law requires boards of education to have a specific policy and procedure to address truancy, which is defined as four (4) unexcused absences from school in any one month or ten (10) unexcused absences from school in any school year.

When a student is identified as truant, a timely meeting is held with the parents or guardians to evaluate the reasons for the absenteeism and make appropriate referrals. These meetings should take place well in advance of the 18 unexcused absences that would label a student as chronically absent. Ultimately, schools may file a written complaint in Superior Court alleging that the student’s family is a family with service needs. If the bill becomes law, when a district or school has a relatively high rate of chronic absenteeism, a district level team would have to revisit all the cases of truancy.

It is also unclear how the new definition of “chronic absenteeism” will interact, if at all, with the current definition in state law of “habitual truant.”

The “habitual truant” law enables cities and towns to adopt ordinances regarding students who are habitually truant—defined as 20 unexcused absences in a school year. The inconsistency in the definitions may be confusing in the implementation of the new law.

Finally, although the fiscal analysis of the bill claims that there is no municipal or state impact,  the creation of yet another district wide team of school administrators, guidance counselors, school social workers, and teachers to meet on a regular basis will have an impact on workload. More importantly, if these teams are expected to take action to combat chronic absenteeism, then any interventions and services that they identify as necessary to achieve such an end will likely have a monetary cost.