D.C. Council committee approves amended truancy bill

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post - D.C. Council member David Catania, second from left, talks with D.C. public schools officials. Catania stripped a provision out of his truancy bill that would have mandated prosecution of parents who have chronically truant children.

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A bill meant to curb the District’s rampant truancy moved forward in the D.C. Council on Wednesday after its sponsor stripped out a controversial provision that would have mandated criminal prosecution of parents of chronically absent children.

The council’s Education Committee voted unanimously in favor of the amended bill, which specifies how and when a student’s unexcused absences would trigger the notification of parents and government intervention.

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“The committee has crafted an updated bill that ensures that parents know their responsibilities, that government agencies are held accountable for preventing truancy and that chronically truant students do not fall through the cracks,” said David A. Catania (I-At Large), the bill’s sponsor and the committee’s chairman, adding that he amended the bill to address concerns that Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration has raised.

The bill now goes to the committee of the whole, which is expected to consider it next month.

Catania’s original proposal would have required officials to prosecute parents whose children reach 20 unexcused absences in a school year. That measure drew resistance from community members who called it overly harsh and from D.C Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, who argued that it usurped his authority to determine when prosecution is appropriate.

The amended version leaves the current law intact, allowing — but not requiring — prosecution after a student has two unexcused absences in a month.

All D.C. schools, including traditional, charter and private schools, would have to notify police after a child has accumulated 10 unexcused absences. Police would then send a letter to the child’s parents, alerting them that they may be subject to prosecution, and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education would send them a truancy prevention guide.

Currently, children age 5 to 13 are referred to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency after 10 unexcused absences. Children age 14 to 17 are not referred to court social services until they reach 25 absences.

In an effort to reach those older truants earlier, Catania had proposed that they be referred to Child and Family Services at 10 absences. But Gray administration officials argued that the agency was not equipped to handle the volume and nature of those cases.

The amended bill calls for older children to be referred to court social services after 15 unexcused absences. The attorney general would also send parents a letter at that point.

The new version of the bill also adds a provision requiring the attorney general to publish an annual report on the referrals it receives from each school and the outcome of each case.

The bill calls for city officials to issue recommendations for eliminating suspensions and expulsions at traditional and charter schools, except in cases when students pose a danger to themselves or others.

The amended bill drew praise from members of the Education Committee. “I know how you operate, Mr. Chairman — put something out there so we can react to it and make some adjustments to it,” said Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who co-sponsored the bill but did not support its mandatory prosecution provision. “I’m so glad you will listen.”

 
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