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Children's Advocates Praise Proposed Truancy Interventions, Scaling Back Of Zero Tolerance Policy

The following article appeared on Gongwer News Service (www.gongwer-oh.com), February 16, 2016. ABLE Attorney Bob Cole provides testimony to the House Education Committee regarding Proposed Truancy Interventions in Ohio schools.

Children's Advocates Praise Proposed Truancy Interventions,
Scaling Back Of Zero Tolerance Policy

Child advocates on Tuesday urged support for a measure that would require schools to take a more holistic approach to addressing truancy in an effort to get students back in the classroom and out of the justice system.

A handful of witnesses told the House Education Committee that the bill (HB 410*), which has caused some pause because of the requirements it places on school districts, will save the state time and money in the long run.

Erin Davies, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition, said a student who is truant is more likely to drop out of school and could cost the state as much as $800,000 over a lifetime because they'll earn less, pay fewer taxes and likely be involved with social services and the criminal justice system.

"The cost of students who become disengaged from school has a significant financial impact on all Ohioans," she said, adding that the investment of about $10,000 annually that schools have made in that student will also be lost.

In addition to requiring intervention teams to be implemented once a child is considered habitually truant, the bill that picked up a handful of changes through a substitute version, would prohibit schools from suspending students for not attending school - a punishment currently found in the state's zero tolerance policy.

Lawmakers raised concerns about how schools will facilitate the intervention teams that include administrators and parents as well as how they will assist students struggling with abuse, illness, or a parent's drug addiction.

Ms. Davies said that shouldn't be a problem, though, because many local and state agencies are ready to lend a hand to ensure students missing school have the resources they need to get on the bus and be to class on time.

"The idea isn't that the school will create these programs, it's that they'll tap into existing resources," she said.

Rep. Kent Smith (D-Euclid) said he was "a little torn on this bill" because of the low threshold of days that must be missed consecutively or in a year that could lead to adjudication alternatives or the formation of an intervention team.

Under the bill, parents would be contacted after 30 or more hours in consecutive absences, 42 or more hours in one month or 72 hours in a school year.

He also questioned a fine of up to $500 for parents who contribute to their child's truancy.

Ms. Davies said the fine was troubling when it was set at a firm $500, but the substitute version makes that the maximum fine amount.

"That's still a lot for low-income families, which are going to be mostly impacted by this bill," she said.

Rep. Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland) also questioned the effectiveness of such a penalty, saying a similar approach didn't work in Cleveland.

"We actually put an ordinance together that truancy officers rounded up truant kids and called their parents. They were fined $500. What we found was all it did was clog up the courts cause if you don't really care about your child, a $500 fine doesn't make a whole lot of difference," he said.

Rep. Jeff Rezabek (R-Clayton), who presented belated co-sponsor testimony, said he hopes the substitute bill will ensure most students and their parents never get to adjudication.

The previous version required schools to consider options other than court referral when students were constantly truant, but the latest iteration requires courts to offer alternatives to adjudication as well.

"Considering the complaint shall be the last resort," Rep. Rezabek said, quoting the substitute bill language.

Because there will inevitably be children who end up in the court system despite the bill, Rep. Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) said the sponsor might consider other penalties for parents who contributed to their children's delinquency.

Parents likely won't pay fines, so some states have withheld public assistance from individuals who are keeping their children out of school, she said.

"I'm all for rooting out these parents that are not helping their child," she said.

Robert Cole, managing attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said the bill's push to find out what's going on in the home prior to getting courts involved is much needed.

Punishing students and parents won't necessarily improve education outcomes or improve student attendance, he said, pointing to students ABLE has represented who faced truancy charges because of illness and attempts to financially provide for a family while in high school.

"The criminalization of tardiness and lack of attendance in school leads to the exclusion of at-risk children from the classroom," he said.

Mr. Cole suggested that service providers also be included in the intervention efforts to ensure the entire family is getting the assistance it needs and that letters reporting consistent absence include contact information for advocacy groups.

Austin Ambrose, James Schuster and Mary Honaker with Students for Education Reform Ohio, applauded the bill and called on the committee to take it one step farther by eliminating all Zero Tolerance policies.

Others who submitted proponent testimony included: Gabriella Celeste, policy director with the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University; Michael Corey, policy analyst for the Children's Defense Fund-Ohio; Sarah Bryer, director of the National Juvenile Justice Network; Angela Lee, director of public affairs for Easter Seals Ohio; and Amari Gwinn, a student who was often absent because of her mom's drug addiction.