Rachel Baughman says her French class is boring. So when spring beckons, the 16-year-old Alexandria high school student just doesn't go.
And, Baughman says, it's legal.
Under new policies in Fairfax, Alexandria, Prince George's and Prince William counties, high school students are allowed from 20 to 40 unexcused absences a year. While more than three consecutive absences will cause their high schools to attempt to contact their parents, many students say the unexcused absences are "free cuts" -- and they are taking them.
"It's easy," said a 15-year-old cheer leader from McLean. "I just spread my cuts around. That way I can cut classes up to 18 times a quarter and my mother never gets called by the office."
"I only worry about cutting classes during cheerleading season," she said.
Alexandria school administrator Donald Dearborn admits that teachers and administrators have to face the fact that students "know what the system is."
"And, they know how to beat it," Dearborn said.
In Alexandria a student can be absent without an excuse three times before his or her parents are notified. After the fourth absence, Alexandria sends a registered letter to the parents of the erring child. Alexandria school officials acknowledge they are spending a lot more money for the letters -- postage alone costs $1.35 per letter -- than they had expected when they drew up the current budget.
"I know we've spent a bundle of it," groused Robert A. Hanley, principal at T. C. Williams.
While 20 to 40 unexcused cuts can be taken without fear of losing academic credit, high school students run the risk of their parents finding out about their truancy. In Fairfax, parents are called after the third unexcused absence; in Prince William parents are sent a letter and in Prince George's they are either called or written.
Fairfax school officials admit, however, that they often cannot reach parents at home and that in some cases parents don't care if their children miss school.
"It's outrageous that so many kids are out of school for any reason at one time," said Karen Rosenbaum, chairman of the Arlington School Board's student attendance policy task force and a mother of two schoolage children. "We're getting parents who write excuses like, 'My child was taking the dog to the vet' and 'He was driving me to the airport,'" Rosenbaum said.
Her group recommended a policy last week that would deny credit to a high school student who has three unexcused absences a semester. According to a school report, 27 percent of Arlington high school students skip out of school sometime during each school day.
"We have to make parents and students take school a little more seriously," Rosenbaum said. "[We] thought we shouldn't horse around about this."
Students who exceed the limit for unexcused absences can lose credit in their courses. The limit for unexcused absences is 40 a year in Fairfax and 20 in Alexandria, Prince George's and Prince William counties.
The Fairfax County policy, the most liberal in the Washington area, was the product of a compromise last year between citizen groups and school administrators. "We just thought it [40 a year] was reasonable," said Margaret Richardson, a Fairfax school administrator.
In Alexandria, T. C. Williams principal Hanley said 6 percent of his 1,700 students received "no credit" in courses taken during the first quarter this year because they had more than five unexcused absences and had ignored warning letters.
Alexandria school board member Allison May said the policy was "not an attempt to flunk students out, but only to tighten up attendance procedures. It would be unenforceable if no cuts were allowed at all. It simply would be unrealistic."
In the District of Columbia, and in Montgomery and Loudoun counties, attendance policies do not link absences to class credits and no unexcused absences are permitted.
In other jurisdictions, however, some students say skipping classes is a way of life.
"Teachers have even told us you've got those five classes [each quarter] and you can skip them if you want to," said Baughman, a T. C. Williams junior.
Seniors say they deserve a special dispensation because they have to suffer through the spring with "senior slump."
"Seniors just live in a whole different world," said Todd Thomson, student government president at Herndon High in Fairfax. "This time of year their applications are into college already and have been accepted, and they don't think school is good for them. They've got cars and "I mean, classes get very boring."
"It's just that I usually have something better to do, something important," said Kurt Mayrand, a Bowie High School senior.
Some college-bound students are resisting the "free cuts" temptation. "We're staying in school even when nothing is happening in class," said Shelley Carpenter, a 16-year-old McLean High School senior.
Another Fairfax high school freshman who cuts classes, says she is glad there are not more "free days."
"Or I'd take them," she said.