According to national statistics, students with disabilities miss more school than their non-disabled peers. Students with autism, anxiety, or PTSD may engage in school-avoidance behaviors. Students who have been bullied may stay home out of fear for their safety. Other students might simply suffer illnesses that require them to miss school. Parents of students missing too much school can face fines, be hauled into family court, and have their children removed. Therefore, it is critical that parents know their rights when it comes to truancy.
Pennsylvania law provides that children between 8 and 17 must attend school. For Philadelphia residents, the compulsory school age is lower—children must begin attending school at six years old. Under the updated 2016 PA law, a student is considered truant after 3 unexcused absences. After 6 unexcused absences, a student is considered habitually truant. Written communication with the school is key to protecting yourself from allegations of truancy. In Philadelphia, parents can access “absence excuse note” templates from the school district website which note that “3 or more days absent in a row requires a doctor’s note.” Any note you give to the school regarding your child’s absence must be in writing and you must keep a copy to protect yourself if there is ever an allegation of truancy. Email is an excellent way to maintain documentation.
After a student has accumulated 3 days of unexcused absences, schools are required to send a warning letter to parents. After 6 unexcused absences, schools must schedule an Attendance Improvement Conference and invite the parents and the child to attend. The purpose of an Attendance Improvement Conference is to discover the reasons behind the absences and produce a written plan. Schools may not take any further actions regarding truancy without holding this conference. Importantly, while schools must invite parents and students to the conference, the school may hold the conference without them.
If there are additional unexcused absences after the Conference, schools must take further action. For students under 15 years old, schools must refer them a school-based or community-based attendance improvement program OR the county Children & Youth Services (CYS) agency. For these students under 15, schools may file a citation against the parent in district court. A citation for truancy is akin to a charge for a summary offense—parents get a court date and are faced with fines if found “guilty.” For students 15 and older who accumulate additional unexcused absences after the Conference, schools must refer students to a school-based or community-based attendance program OR file a citation against their parent or the children directly. Additionally, for these students 15 and older, schools may refer the student to the local CYS agency for a dependency petition- that is a petition alleging that the child is dependent and needs court supervision or removal on account of habitually missing school.
Citations fining parents for truancy are not common in Philadelphia. Rather, truancy is addressed using community-based services and family court. In Philadelphia, when schools refer students to CYS this means a referral to the Department of Human Services (DHS). Generally, that referral will lead to the assignment of Truancy Case Manager (TCM) and a date in Regional Truancy Court—a special court operated by DHS, the school district, and family court. A TCM is tasked with meeting the family through home visits, identifying the attendance barriers, and working with the family to overcome the barriers. At Regional truancy court, families appear before a truancy master who is tasked with making findings regarding the alleged truancy. TCMs are the main witnesses in regional truancy court, reporting on their efforts to meet with the family and the family’s progress in overcoming attendance barriers. A truancy master can set additional court dates to monitor attendance, close the case, or refer a family to DHS to file a dependency petition if there is no improvement in school attendance.
If a child adjudicated dependent, several things can follow. Judges can order the family to do things like undergo mental health evaluations, go to parenting classes, counseling, or participate in other programs. Additionally, the court can supervise the family through regularly scheduled court hearings where an assigned case worker reports on the family’s progress. Importantly, the court also has the power to order that DHS take custody of a child if it finds that it is in that child’s best interest.
If you have a child with a disability or a child who is the victim of bullying and are receiving notices regarding truancy, give us a call at 215-564-1030.