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Truancy officers working to keep children in school

Christan M. Thomas • Apr 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Tennessee law requires that children ages 6 to 17 attend school in a public, private or homeschool environment.

After five unexcused absences, a student is considered to be in violation of the Tennessee Compulsory School Attendance Law. That’s where Lowell Biller, Kingsport City Schools’ supervisor of student attendance, and his department come in.

“Our main goal, above everything else, is to provide support to families, to parents, so that they can help their kids,” Biller said. “That’s the whole purpose of our office. But also with that, we have to enforce the law.”

An attempt is made to hold individual meetings with all of those students and their families who are referred for attendance problems. If progress is not seen, they could then be referred to the truancy prevention specialist and then on to court. Court, however, is a last resort, and several steps are taken before that happens.

Last year, Biller said the system had more than 1,163 referrals — 60 of which ended up with court filings. So far this year, there have had more than 900 referrals — 600 of which have gone on to the truancy prevention program, and 43 petitions have been filed in court.

It’s not one problem that keeps students out of school. Biller said school officials see a “myriad” of problems that prevent students from attending.

“Sometimes it’s lack of parental support — culturally, sometimes their parents didn’t finish school so there’s not a lot of emphasis on education,” Biller said. “Sometimes families move into the area and are homeless or they have specific needs. If the children don’t have clothes, they don’t want to come to school.

“That’s the purpose of having individual meetings. Really sit down and talk and let the parents know that we’re here to help them. Sometimes just in our individual meetings we’ll find that the kids do need clothes or they do need specific things. So we’ll refer them to our agencies within the city.”

The first step in the process occurs after a child has had five unexcused absences. An unexcused absence is defined as an absence that is not supported by a written note from a parent or guardian, physician or school nurse, and that is not for an approved reason such as illness, death in the family, religious holiday, discretionary day, “undue hardship” or extreme weather condition.

After the fifth unexcused absence occurs, a letter is mailed by the school outlining the attendance law (Tennessee Code Annotated 49-6-3007) and KCS attendance policy. The letter also includes a contact to discuss the absences.

If a student misses a sixth time, he or she is then referred to the Office of Student Attendance. Another letter is mailed to schedule an individual meeting with the child’s parent or parents. At the meeting, copies of attendance laws and the KCS attendance policies are provided. Staff tries to determine how the school can provide support to the family.

“When we meet with them, we do a contract,” Biller said. “We want the parents and the students to know that it’s not something Kingsport City (Schools) is doing, but that we’re just following the law. We always give them a copy of the law itself. ... And we always give them a copy of the (KCS) attendance policy. I don’t want anyone walking away from a meeting and saying, ‘I didn’t understand,’ or ‘I didn’t know the law.’”

In the event that the parent cannot attend a meeting, Biller said he tries to either conduct a home visit or sends another letter to the parents. After the initial meeting, the student’s attendance is monitored and as much support as possible is provided to the family.

Sometimes, however, unexcused absences continue. In this case, the family is referred to Cassandra Powers, truancy prevention specialist. Powers’ office may not be the last step if absences still do not stop. The parents may then be referred to the Kingsport/Sullivan County Truancy Council, which is chaired by Director of Juvenile Court Bob Larkins and includes representatives from Sullivan County Schools, KCS, the Department of Children’s Services and community members.

At this point, the Truancy Council conducts interviews to determine if anything else can be done. If no other services can be offered, a Zero Tolerance Contract is completed stating that a petition will be filed in court in the event of another unexcused absence or a petition is filed in court.

Once a truancy case makes it to court, both students and parents may face consequences.

If a student is found to be guilty of violating the Tennessee Compulsory Attendance Law, possible consequences range from supervised probation by a juvenile court or Department of Children’s Services probation officer to being placed in state custody.

If a parent is found guilty under Tennessee law of contributing to the delinquency or dependency of a minor, possible consequences include a fine of $50 for each day of a child’s unexcused absence, serving 11 months and 29 days in jail, probation or community service.

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