Michigan Senate votes to toughen school truancy rules

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Thursday continued a fight against school truancy by approving legislation to define chronic absenteeism and create a framework for preventative measures to keep students in the classroom.

A child with at least 10 unexcused absences in a single year would be considered “truant” under the bills, and a student who misses at least 10 percent of all days would be considered “chronically absent.”

Supporters say the definitions will provide consistent benchmarks for schools that are currently free to create their own guidelines.

The package would require, rather than allow, school districts to notify parents or guardians if a student is missing classes, failing or having other behavioral issues.

Districts could not suspend or expel students solely for missing school too often, but officials would have new flexibility to consider alternative interventions prior to a meeting with parents.

Regular absenteeism would require the district to offer an attendance agreement to parents, and officials could seek court-forced interventions if a student continues to be chronically absent.

“We’ve invested billions of dollars on public schools, and we need to ensure that students are really present in the classroom,” said sponsoring Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton. “Simply put, absences add up and negatively affect academic performance and graduation rates.”

The Senate approved the main bill in the package in a 28-9 vote. It was opposed by several Democrats, including Sen. David Kenzek, who called the package well-intentioned but said he was concerned by the way it would define “attendance.”

The legislation would require a child to be present for 90 percent of a school day to be considered in attendance. That’s tougher than the 50 percent standard in federal law and may not be fair in all instances, said Knezek, who proposed an unsuccessful amendment.

“Think of a student who has an orthodontist appointment. With travel time, those can easily last between an hour and an hour and a half,” said Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights. “The way the legislation is currently written a student would only have 40 to 45 minutes for these kinds of medical appointments and procedures.”

For the purposes of determining chronic absenteeism, the legislation would allow up to five excused absences and additional absences for medical appointments, religious holidays or other specific circumstances, provided the student has an approved form of documentation such as a signed note from a parent or guardian.

Students who miss school too often or drop out are more likely to end up in jail or prison, Schuitmaker said. Of the 8,800 people sentenced to prison in Michigan in 2012, 49 percent did not have a GED or high school diploma, according to her office.

“Schools attendance serves as a true crime prevention tool,” she said.