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How does your kid’s school count absenteeism, truancy? State lawmaker seeks uniform reporting

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SALT LAKE CITY — In some Utah schools, if a student sluffs six class periods, they are counted truant six times.

In other school districts, students are counted absent an entire school day if they missed just one class period.

“I’ve been told one district will give a valid excuse literally for the asking,” said Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, during a recent meeting of the Utah Legislature’s House Education Committee.

When schools have different interpretations of absences and truancy, it makes it difficult for state school officials to determine if interventions are meeting their intended goals and serving students who need them most.

“We want to make sure the data we’re collecting is uniform and understood, but more importantly, that the data were bringing is targeted toward the students most at risk for the academic failure that is caused by missing school for unexcused reasons,” said Jeff Van Hulten, policy adviser with the Utah State Board of Education.

A State School Board task force on eliminating barriers to academic success determined it was difficult for the state to determine if prevention measures the state is already funding are serving their intended target, Van Hulten said.

HB14, sponsored by Snow, seeks to clarify what is meant by truant.

According to the bill, “truant” would mean a school-age child, without valid excuse, is absent for at least half of the school day.

“A school-age child may not be considered truant ... more than one time during one day,” HB14 states.

Snow said the legislation does not alter parental rights to academic accommodations for their children, nor does it limit local school boards or charter schools on what they may consider as excused absences in addition to those in state law.

Under state code, excused absences include mental or physical illnesses, a family death, approved school activities or an absence permitted by a child’s individualized education program.

Some attendance policies in Salt Lake County school districts provide more latitude than others.

Canyons School District’s policy covers those in the state code as excused absences but also includes family emergency, a family event, observance of religious holiday and pre-approved education/vacation leave.

Jordan School District’s policy includes court appearances as an excused absence.

Terry Shoemaker, representing the Utah School Superintendents Association as well as the Utah School Boards Association, spoke in support of the HB14.

The collection and reporting of attendance data has been a challenging issue for policymakers to work from because schools do it differently.

“I think what the good representative is trying to do is standardize that the data then becomes meaningful to everyone who needs to use the data — school districts, policymakers at the state board level, as well as you as policymakers at the legislative level,” Shoemaker said.

How schools define missed days of school as absences versus truancy can result in other consequences, such as referrals to prosecutors or child welfare authorities if parents, after receiving notice, fail to make a good faith efforts to ensure their school-age child receives an appropriate education.

Regular school attendance boosts academic achievement, helps student develop social skills and reduces the likelihood of dropping out of school.

Elizabeth Garbe, senior director of government relations and public policy for United Way of Salt Lake, also spoke in support of standardizing definitions in state code.

“Chronic absence can have a huge impact on student outcomes,” Garbe said.

Consistent definitions will help schools better identify students who are chronically absent and address the issues contributing to them missing school and then “get them back in their seats so they can go along the continuum of their education and become contributing members of our community.”

The House Education Committee gave unanimous support to HB14 and forwarded it to the House of Representative for consideration.