COLUMBUS — A child would no longer be suspended or expelled from school for repeatedly missing classes if a bill related to truancy law reform is passed.
The bill would prohibit public schools from suspending or expelling a student “solely on the basis of unexcused absences.” It also removes “excessive truancy” from a 1998 law that requires schools to adopt zero-tolerance policies for “violent, disruptive or inappropriate behavior, including excessive truancy.”
Matt Verber, a policy director for StudentsFirst Ohio, said the bill would not only keep students in school but also provide necessary interventions to determine why the student is skipping class.
Ohio law requires children between the ages of 6 and 18 to attend a public or private school. A child who repeatedly misses school without a legitimate excuse would be considered a truant and may face disciplinary action or criminal charges under the juvenile justice system if the issue persists.
But a student may miss school for many reasons, said Erin Davies, executive director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition. Some examples include: lack of transportation, having to care for family members or siblings, feeling bullied or unsafe at school, or learning differences that can make school frustrating.
“Unfortunately, Ohio’s approaches to truancy and school discipline do not focus on keeping youth positively engaged in school and instead often create a path to formal juvenile court processing,” Davies said.
James Schuster, a spokesman for Students For Education Reform Ohio, agrees with Davies.
During a committee hearing, Schuster told lawmakers about his brother, Brian, who he said was often suspended or expelled from schools because of the zero tolerance policies.
“The schools he went to used suspensions and expulsions as the first line of defense,” Schuster said.
Schuster said his brother had a developmental deficiency and was uninterested in classroom learning. Brian would often be suspended for his disruptive and rude behavior.
“Rather than taking steps to prevent further incidents, schools reacted swiftly with suspension,” Schuster said. “In a recent email, Brian told me that teachers just wanted him out of the classroom so they did not have to deal with a ‘problem child.’”
Brian eventually started fighting and smoking on school grounds, which led to him being expelled from each school he attended.
“Brian was getting exactly what he wanted — to get out of school — and no one ever stopped to ask him why.” Schuster said.
Brian, 32, is now in Ohio’s Southeastern Correctional Institution.
In 2013, over 7,000 Ohio students were suspended or expelled for truancy, Davies said.
Under current law, a child is considered a “habitual truant” when he or she is absent without a legitimate excuse for five or more consecutive school days, seven in one school month, or 12 in a school year.
The bill would change that definition by reducing the time period to 30 or more consecutive hours, 42 hours in one school month, or 72 in a school year.
The change would allow schools to monitor student absences more efficiently, said Rep. Jeffery Rezabek, R-Clayton.
“We need to start being active…and identify the problems,” Rezabek said. “We need to identify it early, quickly so we can get these kids back to school.”
School districts would be required to notify parents when the student’s absences are close to the habitual truancy level. If a child has reached the habitual truancy level for unexcused absences, school districts must form an intervention team within 10 days and a plan within 30 days.
Members of the intervention team must include a school or district administrator, a teacher, and the child's parent or the child's guardian, according to the bill. Additional members may be added if necessary.
“Not all causes of truancy are the same and each case must be handled differently given the youth involved,” Rezabek said in his testimony.
The bill specifies that a school should only file a complaint as a last resort, after the student refuses to take part or fails to complete the intervention plan.
The bill, HB410, received its second committee hearing last Tuesday.
Joshua Lim is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaLim93.