January 31, 2024

Indiana lawmakers want early intervention for student truancy, shift away from courts

The introduced version of Senate Bill 282 would have cracked down on school truancy by increasing family involvement with Indiana courts.  - Dylan Peers McCoy/WFYI

The introduced version of Senate Bill 282 would have cracked down on school truancy by increasing family involvement with Indiana courts.

Dylan Peers McCoy/WFYI

A Republican lawmaker overhauled her own proposal to tackle student truancy at a committee hearing Wednesday, after a flurry of behind the scenes conversations.

The original bill would have cracked down on school truancy by increasing family involvement with courts. The revised version focuses instead on early intervention when elementary school students miss lots of school. It also urges the legislative council to assign an interim study committee to tackle the issue, which could be the catalyst for other bills in the future. 

"We found out with much, much work that there is a bell curve of truancy,” said the bill’s author Sen. Stacey Donato (R-Logansport). 

Donato hinted at the complexity of addressing truancy, which can have different causes for younger children and teens. “Trying to wrap your arms around that 900 pound gorilla I found to be absolutely impossible," she said.

The revised version of Senate Bill 282 passed out of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee unanimously. It now heads to the full Senate for a vote. 

Some people who spoke about the bill said they had submitted written testimony that focused on their concerns about the original version, but they are now supportive of studying the problem. 

"We believe that the amendment goes really far in addressing the issues that we have,” said JauNae Hanger, president and executive director of the Children's Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana. “We also welcome the idea of an interim study committee to pursue best practices.”

Student absences have surged across the country in recent years, and even as the pandemic waned, the problem has persisted. Last year, about one in five Indiana students missed so much school they were considered chronically absent. 

The bill brings valuable attention to school attendance, said Carolyn Gentle-Genitty, a professor at Indiana University and expert on school absenteeism. “It spotlights what I think is important, which is, accountability has been absent,” she added.

She and other experts told WFYI that punishing students and parents for truancy — as the original bill proposed — flies in the face of best practice. If students are chronically absent it’s likely that they face barriers like problems with transportation or that they have negative feelings about school. 

"Punitive approaches, no matter which ones they are, do not result in meeting the goal of helping students be engaged,” Gentle-Genitty said. 

What’s in the bill?

The proposed plan would require schools to intervene if students in kindergarten through 6th grade miss five days of school within a 10 week period without an excuse or providing parental notification.

Schools would hold a meeting with the parent to develop a plan for improving attendance. It could include wrap around services or a requirement for other outside support  like mentoring. And it would lay out expectations and the discipline a student could face in the future. 

Schools would also notify parents of the attendance problem, that they are responsible for the student attending, and of the penalties in the law for truancy. 

“The big picture is, it requires a school to work with at-risk children before they become habitual truant, so families can get the support they need for their child to attend school consistently,” Donato said. 

What’s the law now?

The bill would not change current law, which allows Indiana law courts to respond if students miss too much school without an excuse. 

A child or teen is considered a “habitual truant” if they miss 10 or more days without an excuse or a “parental request” to the school. If that happens, students can be charged with truancy. And parents can be charged with educational neglect.

Districts are supposed to report students who miss lots of school to the courts or the Indiana Department of Child Services. But it’s unclear how often they report parents or children for truancy. 

In Indianapolis, it’s rare for schools to report families to the courts. When schools or school-based police report students for truancy, their cases are handled by the Marion Superior Court Probation Department. The office received 65 truancy reports from schools between 2021 and 2023, said Chief Probation Officer Christine Kerl. Last year, there were none. 

“We are the place of last resort,” said Kerl, who believes schools are responding to truancy rather than referring students. “Diverting individuals from the juvenile justice system that don't need to be there is always what's best.”

The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office handles referrals of parents or guardians of young children. It has only gotten 60 reports in the last three school years.

When the office receives referrals, staff try to connect families with resources from ride sharing services to mentoring programs, said director of youth programming Jake Brosius, a social worker who runs the truancy program. 

"We're seeing a lot of parents — sometimes single parents or sometimes impoverished parents — that are really trying to do their best," Brosius said. "Parents, the ones I've talked to that have come through our program, are under a lot of pressure."

Excused or unexcused

The amended bill keeps its focus on truancy, which only includes unexcused absences. 

In recent years, educators have increasingly shifted to chronic absenteeism as the best tool to flag students who might have problems. That measure includes those who have excused absences from school. Experts and advocates say it’s a better measure because even students who don’t come to school for reasons like chronic illness miss out on crucial instruction. 

Whether an absence is excused or unexcused is also inconsistent. It’s up to local Indiana districts to set their own policies on what is considered excused. Some districts, for example, allow absences for planned family trips. In contrast, if a student misses school because their family car breaks down, it might not be excused.

"There's a lot of, frankly, racism and classism built into what qualifies as an excused absence or not,” said Sarah Winchell Lenhoff, an associate professor of education policy at Wayne State University. “We're blaming families for things that can happen to anyone, but they don't have the resources to necessarily solve the problem right away.”

Contact WFYI education reporter Dylan Peers McCoy at dmccoy@wfyi.org.

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