March 5, 2024

Indiana lawmakers divided on whether to punish families for school truancy

Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days. About 221,000 Indiana students meet that definition in the 2022-23 school year. - Dylan Peers McCoy/WFYI

Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10 percent of the school year, or about 18 days. About 221,000 Indiana students meet that definition in the 2022-23 school year.

Dylan Peers McCoy/WFYI

Politicians and educators say a surge in school absences following the pandemic is one of the most important challenges affecting schools and families. Nearly one in five Indiana students missed more than 18 days of school last year. 

The issue got a burst of attention last fall, and some lawmakers said it would be a top priority during the legislative session. But policymakers struggled to untangle the causes and solutions for absenteeism, and the only bill focused on school attendance just chips away at the problem. 

The House voted 66-31 Monday to approve Senate Bill 282, authored by Sen. Stacey Donato (R-Logansport). It pushes schools to intervene if elementary school students miss significant amounts of school without an excuse or parental notification. A prior version passed the Senate unanimously.

Earlier in the session the bill was overhauled after behind the scenes conversations. The original bill would have cracked down on school truancy by increasing family involvement with courts. 

The approved House version reignited concerns about harsh penalties for truancy. It would require schools to report to the prosecutor any student who is considered a “habitual truant,” which means the student missed 10 or more days of school without an excuse or parental notification. It would require prosecutors to notify parents of those referrals. 

Rep. Sue Errington (D-Muncie) said she was worried it would push children who miss school into the juvenile justice system.

Bill language could still change, said sponsor Rep. Martin Carbaugh (R-Fort Wayne). It is expected to go to a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will continue to work on it. 

The intent is not to “throw the book” at elementary schoolers, Carbaugh said. But, he added, “we are trying to wake up the parents because they're kind of at the mercy of their parents.” 

That comment bothered Rep. Renee Pack (D-Indianapolis), who said families need support to encourage school attendance, not punitive policies.

"We don't have to wake up parents,” Pack said. “They're awake, and they're taking care of their kids, and they're doing the best they can."

The House also stripped out a provision in the Senate bill that would have urged the legislative council to assign an interim study committee to tackle the issue. Legislative leaders could still assign the issue to be studied over the summer. 

One of the biggest gaps in the bill aimed at tackling student absenteeism is that it only focuses on truancy. It does not address students who have lots of excused absences.

Indiana education officials, in contrast, have focused on chronic absenteeism, which includes excused absences, in their reports on student attendance. Experts and advocates say it’s a better measure because even students who stay home from school for reasons like illness miss out on crucial instruction. 

Tim McRoberts, from the Indiana Association of School Principals, told the House Education Committee last month that his group supports the bill. But it does not address the full problem facing schools. 

"The bill talks about habitual truancy. And yes, that's an issue. That's a major issue,” McRoberts said. But he added that many students who miss lots of school have excuses or their parent have given notice. “They're just absent, and they're chronically absent.”

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

 

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