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House panel backs an amended truancy bill

Suspected truants will not face car impoundment or possible requirements to carry proof they are excused from school under a truancy bill amended and forwarded today by the House Education Standing Committee.

The committee also amended the bill, which would allow fines for parents of habitually truant schoolchildren, to include home school, private school and dual enrollment as a "legitimate or valid excuse" for being out and about during public school hours.

=r5 The committed voted 7-3 to forward HB320, with opposition from Reps. Bill Wright, R-Elberta, Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley, and Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, who indicated she favored the bill minutes before the vote.

Bill sponsor Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, called the changes "friendly amendments," adding his interest is not in stripping anyone's rights.

"This bill is definitely needed. We've gone on way too long without a way to deal with these issues," Bourdeaux told the committee and packed audience, where opponents outnumbered supporters. "This is a piece of legislation that gets to the heart of these problems."

But Wright said the bill would devalue education.

"We want the best educational system in this country, we need to have choice, we need to have agency . . . we don't need to have truancy officers chasing people around," he said. "Policies like this are not in the best interest of the state of Utah."

Utah's compulsory education law requires children ages 6 to 18 to attend school. School officials must make "earnest and persistent" efforts to get children to class, including counseling and parent meetings.

The bill would add teeth to those laws. Parents of students unexcused four times in four weeks or 10 in a semester could be fined, but only if problems persist after the school notifies and attempts to work with them.

Parental citations would carry fines from $50 to $250, but could be waived for those proving one month's perfect attendance or agency referrals.

Such tactics are employed in Oklahoma, where parents can be fined and welfare payments withheld if their children tally substantial unexcused absences.

In Utah, Washington Terrace police have been granted authority to pick up truants and assess fines similar to those in Bourdeaux's bills, decreasing daytime crime, chief Merv Taylor told the committee earlier this week.

But shuffling suspected truants to receiving centers is not new, said Doug Bates, attorney for the State Office of Education. Police or school district officials have had that authority for a decade.

Bill opponents had blanketed committee members with calls Thursday evening. Some parents this week had expressed fear that home-schooled children would have to carry identification regarding their school situation.

Concerns regarded language allowing the State Board of Education to work with local school districts, courts and others to develop processes to identify students with legitimate excuses for being out of school.

That language was deleted.

Language was added to define a legitimate excuse as home school, dual enrollment or private school attendance. But the rest of the bill applies to children ages 6 to 18 under current law.

Gayle Ruzicka, president of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, supported the language changes but still wants all suspected truants referred to juvenile court, not justice court as the bill states.

The State Attorney General's Office, which favors the bill's intent, is working with Bourdeaux to fine-tune the bill on court-referral matters, perhaps with suspected truants under age 11 being referred to juvenile courts. New language could be completed over the weekend.