Avery Gagliano studies the piano and violin at home in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

The D.C. public school system says it wants Avery Gagliano back.

On Tuesday, after I wrote a column about a 13-year-old piano prodigy who withdrew from a D.C. public school after being called truant for performance-related absences, Chancellor Kaya Henderson issued a statement saying the column was wrong, and they would like to have Avery back at Alice Deal Middle School.

“The recent Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak titled “In D.C., a 13-year-old piano prodigy is treated as a truant instead of a star student,” is inaccurate and misleading in its portrayal of the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) truancy protocols, as well as what happened with the family and DCPS. We are disappointed Ms. Dvorak chose to present a false representation of DCPS’ response about this child’s circumstances rather than taking the time to collect the relevant facts,” according to the statement.

The press release, issued four days after a request for information and an interview with Henderson about the case, said that they “excused Avery’s absences for international travel last year after conversations with the family and her school.”

It said the school system “did not make a referral to a truancy officer, Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) nor any government agency for intervention” and the “family was never at risk for truancy prosecution.”

Avery Gagliano works on homework and studies her piano and violin at home in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

And it said that no student is ever labeled “truant” and school officials “work diligently” with families to recognize special exceptions to their universal truancy policy.

But Avery’s mom, Ying Lam, stands by her account. And I stand by mine.

Lam said her decision to withdraw her daughter came after the administration told her in emails that her absences would be marked unexcused, though she was also told in subsequent conversations “don’t worry about it.” Lam shared the emails with me.

After Avery missed more than 10 days of school because of a music program in Munich and a competition in Hartford, the family got repeated phone calls from the school’s truancy office. Lam said they were never told the absences would be excused, and, as far as she knows, they weren’t excused.

During summer vacation, the family received yet another letter informing them that her daughter was truant, along with a helpful brochure that outlines the possible police and Child and Family Services intervention for students who are truant.

“Yes, they told us to ignore the truancy notices, but they told us the absences were not excused (never once they communicated the “excused code” to us),” Lam said, “while we were bombarded by all the automated calls and letters.”

Henderson’s statement said that Avery’s transcript will reflect an “authorized activity” school code. Clearly, the absences were marked in their system as unexcused, triggering the truancy notices and calls.

Lam said she and her husband, Drew Gagliano, were told to disregard the truancy letters they received at the end of the school year, but then received even more over the summer.

Henderson’s statement said the family was never in danger of prosecution, but the barrage of calls and official letters they kept receiving sure threatened that.

So which letters from school can parents ignore and which ones should they take seriously? Wouldn’t any law-abiding, well-meaning family take those written warnings to heart.

There were plenty of discussions sparked over this by families who have received similar letters because of family trips or overseas travel. “Those letters are scary,” one parent said on social media.

Other parents who have family or work abroad said they withdraw their children for the period of travel, then re-enroll them once they get back, to avoid tripping the truancy law.

Avery’s parents really wanted to believe in the public school system. Their younger daughter is in a public elementary school, and they want her to stay there.

Henderson called the family Tuesday morning and left a message saying she would like to find solutions to work with this family.

“Where were they before?” Lam wondered.

Last year she and her husband created a portfolio of Avery’s musical achievements and straight-A academic record. They drafted an independent study plan for the days she’d miss while touring the world as one of the star pianists selected by a prestigious Lang Lang Music Foundation, run by Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

On Tuesday, there was a minor stampede of private schools after Avery. At least two Post readers contacted the family offering to pay part or all of the tuition needed to send her to a private school.

But that’s not the solution Lam was hoping for. She wanted the school system to revisit its blanket policy and treat students as individuals. She wanted a system that doesn’t say one thing, then do another.

Lam said they are conflicted, but will probably be most comfortable continuing to home school Avery this year. The mixed-messages and the heavy travel schedule that awaits her as a music ambassador for the Lang Lang Music Foundation doesn’t give the family confidence that Avery won’t land in trouble again.

The school system issued a huge report on truancy Tuesday, outlining their efforts to fight the nagging numbers that show nearly a third of students — 15,000 children — are truant. In fact, if officials had been willing to acknowledge their mistakes in their misguided pursuit of Avery’s family, they might have been able to argue that the overreach showed how serious and far-reaching their efforts are.

Instead Henderson and DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz bickered over details. Salmanowitz even told Washington City Paper that she spoke to me last week, and that I didn’t convey the specifics of the column. I spoke with Salmanowitz for 45 minutes, and she insisted the parts of our conversation about Avery’s case be off the record. I explained exactly what Avery’s parents had told me and asked for Henderson or someone else to respond on the record. No one did. The column was live on our website all day Monday. Still, no one responded.

In essence, they are claiming not just that I misrepresented and mischaracterized the situation, but that Avery’s parents did, too.

Henderson’s statement said there is something to be learned here: “As we continue to work to make improvements in enforcing truancy protocols, the lesson here is the need for better and more timely communication,” she said.

It took a year of frustration, mixed messages and truancy notices before Avery’s parents got to hear this from Henderson. Glad they finally did.

Email: petula.dvorak@washpost.com Twitter: @petulad