Posters about attendance and encouraging high attendance rates hang near the entrance of Simon Elementary School in Washington, D.C., on April 24, 2014. D.C. has high truancy rates, but a newly proposed law would cut down on the number of students who are referred to social services or court for being tardy to school. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council is pushing to minimize the number of students considered truant by giving them credit for showing up for any part of the school day — even if they arrive hours after the first bell rings.

Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced legislation that would undo the city’s 80/20 rule, which says students are considered absent for a day of school if they miss 20 percent or more of that day.

Students can still be penalized by their schools for being tardy, but the measure would reduce the number of students categorized as truant, which would mean fewer would be referred to Child and Family Services or to court.

“There were so many kids that are being referred to court for no reason,” said Grosso, who chairs the council’s education committee. “A big goal of my committee is that we don’t perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.”

On Tuesday, the council approved extending a temporary version of this legislation, which took effect at the beginning of the school year and applies only to high school students. Grosso’s latest proposal, which he introduced with Phil Mendelson (D), the council’s chairman, would apply to students of all ages. The council has scheduled a hearing on the legislation for Jan. 21.

More than half of the city’s high school students — 56 percent — were considered “chronically truant” during the 2013-2014 school year after accumulating more than 10 unexcused absences, according to a 2015 report from the Children’s Law Center and DC Lawyers for Youth.

In the District, truancy has long been a problem, and chronic absenteeism is tied to poor school performance and low graduation rates. Before 2010, students weren’t considered chronically truant until they reached 28 unexcused absences. Now, because of recent laws, the city’s schools must scrupulously track absences and address any issues at certain thresholds. If a student has 10 unexcused absences, it triggers a referral to Social Services. At 15 unexcused absences, students 14 to 17 can be referred to court.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has argued that the tightened rules create a backlog of paperwork, preventing school officials from engaging with the students who need it the most. The new law would reduce the number of students being referred to outside city agencies, presumably decreasing some of the administrative burdens on schools.

The problem of truancy gained renewed attention after the 2014 disappearance of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old student at Southeast Washington’s Payne Elementary who accumulated more than 30 absences before a school social worker contacted police.

Henderson said at the time that the “number of kids who have the same number of absences as Relisha is astounding.”

Grosso argues that there are number of reasons why students might arrive late to school and that if they make the effort to get there for at least part of the day, they should not be deemed truant. The 2015 Children’s Law Center report recommended revising the 80/20 rule, saying it confused chronic tardiness with absenteeism, leading to inappropriate interventions.

The temporary legislation allows the D.C. Public Schools and the city’s charter schools to decide whether they want to count tardies as absences; the public school system chose not to count tardies as absences. If approved, the permanent legislation would make it mandatory not to count them as absences.

The School Attendance Clarification Amendment Act of 2015 also would require students to submit written explanations of their absences within five days of their return to school and prohibit the suspension or expulsion of students for attendance issues. And police officers who encounter minors they suspect are skipping school would have to take the students to school instead of referring them for law enforcement action.

“This legislation will enable our government to continue the progress towards reducing truancy,” Mendelson said in a statement. “Most people think of truancy as an educational issue, which it is, but it also is an indicator of children at risk for entering the juvenile justice system. For these two reasons, it must continue to be our priority to tackle truancy.”

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