By Scott DiMauro, OEA Vice President
As educators, we are deeply committed to the success of every student, including those who struggle to make it to school every day. That is why OEA welcomes the introduction of House Bill 410 (HB 410) and its focus on student truancy in Ohio’s schools. It offers positive alternatives to the legal system in the effort to reduce truancy.
Discipline polices that provide fairness and appropriateness are crucial. The 2008 report, Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the School?, commissioned by the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, states that pre-determined consequences do not deter student misbehavior or promote learning. The report concluded that zero tolerance policies often lead to higher dropout rates and an increase in poor behavior.
At our Representative Assembly in December 2013, OEA members overwhelmingly adopted a legislative policy on school discipline that opposes policies that apply pre-determined consequences without consideration of the associated circumstances for issues that do not involve the safety of others. The policy outlines our opposition to discriminatory enforcement of such policies and we are pleased to see that HB 410 prohibits suspensions and expulsions as penalties solely because of unexcused absences under a school district’s zero tolerance policy.
These punishments are counter-productive and do not provide the interventions necessary to address why a student is absent from school, which this bill does address. HB 410 includes a requirement for the State Board of Education to develop a model policy regarding preventative strategies and alternatives for students who are excessively absent, while still keeping legal intervention the last step in attempting to curb student absences.
HB 410 requires public schools to establish an absence intervention team for every habitually truant student. Within 30 days, the team must create an intervention plan to reduce further absences. We know that students are absent for a wide variety of reasons and we agree that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of student absences. Many school districts across the state have implemented early intervention programs to identify the barriers to student attendance. These efforts are making a difference.
HB 410 also requires schools to submit information to the Ohio Department of Education about students who are absent for 38 or more hours in one month, 65 or more hours in a school year or who are classified as habitual truants when absence intervention plans have been implemented. OEA believes such data is vitally important to the discussion of ways to combat truancy.
However, OEA is concerned about the capacity of a school district to carry out the bill’s requirements. In urban and larger school districts, where truancy rates are higher, there will most likely be a resource crunch to meet the provisions outlined in the bill. According to the Ohio Legislative Services Commissions Fiscal Note, in the 2013-2014 school year, there were approximately 21,900 incidents of student truancy that resulted in some form of discipline. Teacher input on the intervention team is essential, so providing adequate staffing and the needed time and financial resources to ensure successful implementation must be addressed.
OEA also believes that efforts must be made by school districts and student intervention teams to encourage parents to be part of the effort to boost attendance in school. Parents and guardians play an important role in a child’s education. Researchers cite family involvement as a key component in addressing school truancy as well as fostering higher educational aspirations for students. So there is no delay in carrying out these important interventions, OEA recommends that the legislation provide options when parents are not available or responsive.
It is clear that habitual truancy is a significant barrier to academic achievement. Combating this problem requires early intervention. Research published by the National Center for Children in Poverty in 2008 showed that chronic absence in the lower grade levels led to lower academic performance for students regardless of gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Other studies have found that students who are habitually absent in the lower grades have a difficult time attaining reading proficiency and are more likely to be absent in future years. OEA looks forward to working with stakeholders to develop effective solutions to the truancy problem so that students are in school and learning every day.