Should parents be able to take their kids out of school without getting a truancy letter?

Breen Elementary student Benjamin Wilson, 10, camping at Juniper Hills Park in Oregon in preparation for the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. His family recently received a truancy letter because his absence from school was unexcused.
Breen Elementary student Benjamin Wilson, 10, camping at Juniper Hills Park in Oregon in preparation for the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017. His family recently received a truancy letter because his absence from school was unexcused.

California’s strict truancy laws are rubbing some parents the wrong way.

A student only needs to be 30 minutes late for school three times to be labeled a truant and have a letter sent home threatening their parents with prosecution. Being tagged a chronic truant – after missing 10 percent or more of the school year – could mean up to a $2,000 fine and jail time for parents or the student.

California school districts have a new urgency to increase attendance now that truancy will be officially counted as a measure of school performance on the state’s new dashboard, which will replace the Academic Performance Index score in December.

But some parents believe that districts should give parents more discretion to take kids out of school.

Last year, Kim Berry was surprised to learn his daughter would receive a truancy letter from Carriage Drive Elementary School in Citrus Heights for attending his older daughter’s wedding in Arizona and then traveling to the Grand Canyon.

“It would be a great educational opportunity for someone in third grade,” Berry said. “In my day, if we went to Canada for a week, we gave a presentation (when we returned).”

The principal and Berry exchanged a few more emails on the matter, but the status of the four-day absence remained unchanged: unexcused.

A week after the trip, Berry received the a truancy letter. “I view it as an over-the-top threat,” he said. “It’s a boilerplate letter, whether your kid is out stealing cars or going on vacation.”

Berry says it angers him that state officials think they know what is best for his child. “I don’t blame the teacher and the principal, they are under mandate to follow state law,” Berry said.

The local debate over parental rights versus state law heated up this fall when a family that went to see the solar eclipse in Oregon received a letter from Breen Elementary School in Rocklin declaring their 10-year-old son a truant.

The letter warned Richard and Lilia Wilson that they must ensure their son attends school. A list of potential ramifications included the school seeking prosecution of both parents and their son if they don’t comply, which is allowed under the state’s education code.

Twin Rivers Unified in the north Sacramento area is among the local districts updating their attendance policies in light of the new accountability measure.

“I think definitely there has always been an emphasis on trying to improve school attendance,” said Rudy Puente, director of Student Services. “When we have better attendance, we have better outcomes. With the additional accountability, districts are working even harder to get students to school.”

California has had a truancy law since 1874. School districts are bound by state law, which offers a short list of reasons student absences can be excused: illness; quarantine; jury duty; court appearances; religious observances; attendance at employment or educational conferences; and working at an election precinct.

Students are allowed one day off school for the funeral of an immediate family member if the service is in California, three days if it is out-of-state.

“I think that’s pretty harsh,” said Barbara Lindsay of Folsom. Her son was only allowed to miss one day of third grade at Empire Oaks Elementary School when his grandfather died.

She would have liked to have more time. “It’s hard for them to understand a lot of the gravity of life and death,” she said.

A three-day family trip in 2008 resulted in a truancy letter for her son. Lindsay had taken her children out of school on independent study during past travels, but students must be gone for five days to qualify.

“We were trying to take the high road and say it wasn’t in their best interest to take five days or to call in sick,” she said. “They were encouraging the parents to lie.”

Many parents contacted by The Sacramento Bee believe the rules encourage parents to say their children are sick to generate more average daily attendance funds for schools. But schools haven’t been able to collect state attendance funds for sick children since the late 1990s.

School officials say they are simply following the law and doing what is best for students.

“Kids are off for a lot of time,” said Victoria Flores, director of student support and health services at Sacramento City Unified. “We want to encourage our kids to take vacations when they are out of school.”

Chronic absences in kindergarten and first grade are associated with lower third-grade reading scores, while ninth-grade chronic absences are a huge indicator that a student will drop out of school, said Hedy Chang, president of Attendance Works, a federally funded initiative.

“What we know from lots of research now, as well as common sense, is if we want kids to benefit from what is taught in the classroom they have gotta be there,” she said.

Trisha McKay was unhappy to hear that her kindergartner is one absence away from a truancy letter that would remain on file and could move with her if she transfers.

“I wouldn’t be OK with that being in her file,” McKay said. “It’s not her fault. I’m her mother and if I say she needs to be excused, she needs to be excused.”

McKay, whose husband is stationed overseas with the U.S. Air Force, lives in Folsom with her eight children. “This is the strangest system I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I didn’t have children to (have them) be raised by the school system.”

She said other schools her children have attended in other states and overseas have allowed parents to take children out, even if it was just to spend family time together.

Because her husband is overseas, McKay said she sometimes has to take one child out of class a little early or bring another to school a little late to get her five school-age children to their three respective schools each day.

McKay hasn’t received a truancy letter for any of her kids yet, but has racked up several unexcused absences since school started in August. One daughter received an unexcused absence because the family registered her for school early and was still in the process of moving on the first day of school.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said McKay, who doesn’t want to tell her children to be dishonest and say they were sick.

Chang said it’s important that students attend school, but doesn’t like the state-mandated wording in the truancy notifications sent to families.

“I don’t think the way one does that is through threat,” she said. “It starts with talking to the family. Let’s talk about why they are missing and what are the (educational) consequences.”

Some school districts have started to tinker with truancy letters to make them more palatable to parents, she said. Some of the new, kinder letters put the state-mandated wording in small print at the end.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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