Know Your Rights: Truancy in the School District of Philadelphia

Many special education students miss school from time to time.  Students with autism, anxiety, or PTSD may engage in school-avoidance behaviors.  Students who have been bullied because of their disabilities may stay home out of fear for their safety.  And other students might simply suffer illnesses that require them to miss school.  In the School District of Philadelphia (and other districts), even these types of absences can lead to truancy proceedings.  Therefore, it is critical that parents know their rights when it comes to truancy.

Truancy Basics in the School District of Philadelphia

Under the Pennsylvania School Compulsory Law, students who are 6 to 17 years old in the School District of Philadelphia are required to attend school.  To enforce this law, the District initiates the truancy process when a student accumulates 10 or more unexcused absences.  At 10 or more unexcused absences, the student’s school submits a truancy referral to the District’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibility.  That office then sends the referral to the Philadelphia Family Court.

Excused vs. Unexcused Absences

The School District of Philadelphia considers an absence unexcused unless a parent submits a note explaining the absence within 3 days of the absence.  When a student misses only 1 or 2 consecutive days, the parent can simply submit a handwritten note with her explanation.  But if the student misses 3 or more consecutive days, the parent must submit a doctor’s note.  Further, the District requires a doctor’s note for all absences after a student’s eighth absence of the school year.

For parents, keeping track of unexcused absences is critical.  If your child’s unexcused absences reach 10, you’ll face truancy proceedings.

The School District of Philadelphia’s Intervention Process

The School District of Philadelphia requires schools to take certain steps to help parents before their child accumulates 10 unexcused absences.  Upon a child’s third unexcused absence, her school must send a “Three Day Legal Notice” to her parents, informing them about the absences.  And when a child accumulates 6 unexcused absences, her school must hold an attendance improvement conference.  At the conference, the school must develop a Student Attendance Improvement Plan.

Truancy Proceedings: Process and Punishments

When the School District of Philadelphia sends a truancy referral to the Philadelphia Family Court, the parent will soon thereafter receive a subpoena from the Family Court stating that she must appear for a hearing.  At the hearing, the District will have the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that (1) the parent’s child is subject to the School Compulsory Law, (2) the child is habitually truant, and (3) the truancy is without justification.  The parent will have an opportunity to present evidence disproving these points.  The parent can bring an attorney to the hearing to present her case.

If the District proves its case and the Family Court issues a truancy conviction, the presiding judge can impose a punishment.  (The judge is not required to impose a punishment.)  The punishment can include: a fine of up to $300 for a first offense, up to $500 for a second offense, and up to $750 for a third offense; community service; or completion of a course or program to improve school attendance.  The judge cannot sentence a parent to jail.  The judge can order jail time only if a parent fails to comply with a truancy sentence (i.e., by failing to pay her fine), the parent could have complied, and the parent willfully failed to comply.

Parents have a right to appeal a truancy conviction.  Within 30 days of the conviction, they can file an appeal to the court of common pleas.