Gray officials assail tougher anti-truancy bill

February 12, 2013

Gray administration officials on Tuesday assailed a proposed D.C. Council bill that would require prosecuting parents of chronically truant children, calling it expensive, unneeded and an overreach of legislative power.

District students, parents and child advocates also implored the council to reconsider the bill, describing it as an overly harsh approach to a complex problem.

But D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) pushed back during a five-hour public hearing, saying that the measure is a fair way to address rampant truancy. He portrayed it as the second prong of an effort that began with a 2012 law that requires schools to identify why individual students are chronically absent and help get them to class.

“After we have done everything in our power to make sure the child is in school, there have to be consequences [for the parents], because the consequences for the child not being in school are lifelong,” said Catania, chief sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Education Committee. “We are in the midst of a truancy epidemic, and the systems that we have in place today are not working.”

More than 5,000 children missed more than a month of class last year in the District. In four of the city’s worst-performing high schools — where graduation rates are far below average — at least 40 percent of students missed a more than a month.

This school year, more than 2,500 District students have missed at least 11 days of class.

The numbers have sparked frustration among Catania and his council colleagues, including Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who said absenteeism is a signal that a child is at risk of entering the criminal justice system.

“Truancy, in my view, is a fundamental issue that the government has to deal with,” Mendelson said.

Under current law, parents can be jailed for five days and fined $100 if their child misses two or more days of school in a month, but they rarely are. The bill would raise the bar for government intervention to 10 unexcused absences in a school year. Then, the Child and Family Services Agency would investigate cases involving children up through age 17. The agency now investigates truants 13 and younger.

That expansion of duties would come at a price — at least $4.4 million a year, CFSA Director Brenda Donald said.

The bill also would require the D.C. attorney general to prosecute parents whose children accumulate 20 unexcused absences in a school year. Parents could be sentenced to take parenting classes or complete community service at their child’s school, and if they fail to show up, they could be fined or jailed. Parents also could plead loss of control over a teenager, which would send the child to court authorities for supervision.

D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan called the proposal a “straitjacket” that would usurp his authority to decide when it’s appropriate to charge a parent.

“Taking children away from their homes or putting parents of truant children in jail should be, as they are now, rare and extreme measures of keeping children in the classroom,” Nathan said.

The executive branch already has the legal tools it needs to hold parents accountable for their children’s school attendance, Nathan added. He said his office has prosecuted parents in every truancy case the school system has referred to his office — a total of 116 cases in the past three years.

Catania said he would be willing to compromise on the measure’s mandatory-prosecution provision. He also signaled that public charter schools, currently “left to their own devices,” should be expected to abide by the same rules as traditional schools.

Charters’ expulsion policies would be subject to new scrutiny under the bill, which calls on the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to issue recommendations for eliminating expulsions except in extreme cases. Charter schools have expelled far more students than traditional schools in recent years.

The provision was inserted by bill co-author David Grosso (I-At Large), who said he also would like to scrutinize suspensions. Discipline that keeps children out of school, he said, is one of the “root causes of chronic truancy.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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