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Lisa Schmidt
Truancy Reform Bills address Absenteeism, Zero Tolerance

Michigan Senate Tackles Truancy Reform

The idea of truancy is as old as public schools. It brings to mind stereotypes of mischief-making teenagers ditching class to do drugs. But the reality behind truancy is a quagmire of inconsistent rules, poor tracking, and punishments that only make the problem worse. The Michigan Senate is considering a set of truancy reform bills to help change that.

When is a student truant? How many times does she have to be absent before it is a problem? Are there good reasons to be absent? And what do you do with a student with a truancy problem?

For far too long, Michigan has avoided creating any universal standard to address these questions. School districts have been left to their own devices to define, enforce, and punish truancy. And sometimes, their solutions just don’t make sense. Gongwer reported on testimony given during the Senate Families, Seniors and Human Services Committee hearing on April 14, 2016:

Trevon Stapleton, a Detroit high school student appearing with Youth Action Michigan, said in eighth grade he missed a substantial number of days for illness, for which he was suspended.

“So when I was finally healthy and wanted to go back to school I couldn’t,” he said.

That’s right, for many school districts, the punishment for missing too much school is to force you to miss more school. Advocates are pushing for that to change:

Paul Salah, associate superintendent for educational services for Wayne Regional Education Service Agency, urged the committee, while it was addressing the section of law, to also remove much of the mandatory suspension and expulsion language.

“Children should absolutely under no circumstances be suspended or expelled for being truant or chronically absent,” he said.

That is why Senator Tonya Schuitmaker has introduced four bills which, taken together, would provide state-wide truancy reform. On her website, she says:

“This package reforming Michigan’s truancy laws would create an environment for our students to succeed,” said Schuitmaker, R-Lawton. “In the Legislature, we are constantly working to make our schools better for students, and this package is about making sure we keep students in school.

The bills would:

  • Prohibit students from being suspended or expelled for chronic absence,
  • Define truancy as 10 unexcused absences per school year,
  • Define chronically absent as missing at least 10% of any school year,
  • Require written documentation after a student’s 5th absence,
  • Require school districts to notify parents of attendance problems,
  • Eliminate zero tolerance language and allow schools to use lesser interventions before requiring parent meetings, suspensions, or expulsions;
  • Allow school officials to offer social service interventions to combat absenteeism;
  • Require schools to report data about expulsions, suspensions, truancy, chronic absences, and disciplinary absences; and
  • Put truancy exclusively in the jurisdiction of the family court.

The problems underlying truancy go far deeper than skipping school. Often they involve poor busing, lack of family resources, and a detachment from the system. All too often, truancy is a family problem, not a behavior problem. Perhaps, through these bills, and others like them, the state Department of Education will be better able to treat the causes of absenteeism, rather than simply punishing the symptoms.

Lisa J. Schmidt is a school law attorney for Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents students facing disciplinary hearings at school and in juvenile court. If your student is facing suspension or expulsion, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.

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