Truancy policies can catch parents by surprise

Tracy Meisenheimer said she was stunned in February when she received a letter from her daughter’s school notifying her that her 6-year-old was considered truant.

Meisenheimer, who suffers from migraine headaches, said she had been late getting her daughter to school a few times because she felt unable to drive. She also said her daughter had been sent home by the school nurse once because it was suspected she had tonsillitis, although a doctor later confirmed she did not.

Nevertheless, after her daughter’s seventh unexcused absence from kindergarten this year, Meisenheimer was reported to state child welfare officials, placed in a diversion program, and next month she will have to appear at a hearing to determine whether she has satisfied the terms of her diversion.

“I’m flabbergasted at what I’m hearing,” Meisenheimer said. “The diversion program means two hours once a week for nine weeks, or until a hearing is set with the assistant district attorney. I have someone come to my home every week to talk to my daughter.”

Meisenheimer said she thinks school officials have overreacted to a few days when her child was not absent, but simply late getting to school. And while Lawrence school district officials declined to discuss an individual case, they said the school district’s policies on absences and truancy only reflect state law.

“The bottom line is that it’s important for students to be in school in order to learn,” superintendent Rick Doll said.

According to the district’s policy manual, truancy is defined as, “any three consecutive unexcused absences, any five unexcused absences in a semester or seven unexcused absences in a school year, whichever occurs first.”

That’s the same language used in the Kansas statute dealing with compulsory attendance.

But the state statute only defines an unexcused absence as being absent for “all or a significant part of a school day without a valid excuse.” It leaves the decision about what constitutes a “significant part of a school day,” and what constitutes a “valid excuse” up to each individual district.

In Lawrence, an elementary student who is gone for one hour or more, or a secondary student who misses one period or more, is defined as absent. But the school system leaves the decision about whether an absence is excused or unexcused up to each school principal.

Meisenheimer said she thinks that is unfair because, “if you (anger) the principal, he can make your life hell.”

Student handbooks at each of the city’s schools give general guidance about what constitutes an excused absence, but an examination of those handbooks reveals that the policies are different from one school to the next.

At Deerfield School, which Meisenheimer’s daughter attends, the handbook states that all absences are unexcused except those for “illness of the student, death in the immediate family, and exceptionally urgent reasons that affect the student.”

Parents must notify Deerfield officials of a student’s absence and seek an excuse within two school days of the absence. Otherwise they are permanently recorded as unexcused.

Quail Run School’s handbook, in contrast, says that “sickness of a student, severe affliction in the family, exposure to infectious or contagious diseases, observances of religious holidays or extremely inclement weather are examples of legitimate excuses for nonattendance or tardiness. Examples of unexcused absences include trips or vacations.”

And the Langston Hughes School handbook offers no specific examples of an excused absence, but advises parents that, “children who have had fevers should be fever-free for 24 hours before they return.”

During the 2011-12 school year, Lawrence district officials filed 416 truancy reports, according to district spokeswoman Julie Boyle. Of those, she said, 318 were for high school students.

The state statute requires school districts to notify state child welfare officials or local law enforcement whenever a child younger than 13 is considered truant. For students 13 and older, districts are required to file reports directly with local law enforcement agencies.

Those reports trigger an investigation by the Kansas Department for Children and Families, formerly known as Social and Rehabilitation Services. In most cases, according to the department, truancy and other forms of “non-abuse or neglect,” families are referred for family preservation services or, in more serious cases, placement of the child in foster care.

From July 1, 2012, through March 31, 2013, the agency reported 68 children in Kansas were removed from their homes because of truancy.