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Chronic absences, a school problem

Too many students missing class, both excused and unexcused

by ARIEL McRAE | Associate Editor

Education is the backbone of America. Getting a good kindergarten through 12th grade education can open doors that might otherwise stay closed. College, careers and higher pay are only some of the pay offs of getting a great education. In order to receive the knowledge, though, a student needs to be present at school every day.

Chronic absenteeism is a major problem within the United States. School superintendents everywhere are trying everything they know to get kids into school on a more permanent basis. Missing days results in missing assignments, lessons and social structure needed to build a strong educational foundation within a student. There also is a possibility to land in truancy court for being chronically absent. This is especially an issue in Humboldt currently.

“There is a correlation between the chronically absent at risk and academically at risk. If you aren’t here, you aren’t learning and if you are late, you aren’t learning,” explained Humboldt City Schools Superintendent Dr. Janice Epperson. “That direct correlation is killing us.”

Dr. Janice Epperson inherited a chronic absentee problem. It is not a unique problem as there are issues with absenteeism throughout Gibson County, but Humboldt is the only school in the district that has a parent liaison, Greg Lennon.

Lennon is the go between from the school to the parents in regards to a student being absent. Humboldt City Schools has a policy that after three unexcused absences, Lennon will call the parent. If he cannot get an answer, he will go knock on the parent’s door in order to find out why the child is not in school.

Attendance is important at the state level because schools are graded on attendance, but it is also gone after at the local level. For Humboldt, after three days, parents receive a letter from the school about the chronic absenteeism. After five missed days, parents receive another letter and a meeting is scheduled. After seven missed days, parents are given another letter, meeting and an action plan on how to get the child into school. After 10 missed days, the parent will be sent to truancy court where the judge shows very little leniency. It is also important to note that three tardies to school result in one unexcused absence.

In a letter Gibson County Juvenile Court Judge J. Mark Johnson sent to the school, he stated, “If a child is truant, the court will typically, but not exclusively, exercise one or more of the following dispositions, all of which are allowed by the law.”

•Assessing a fine and court costs against the parent or guardian. Maximum fines are $50 per incident of unexcused absences in violation of the school’s attendance policy. Money collected in fines will be routed back to the particular school by the county.

•Finding reasonable grounds that the parent or guardian is responsible for the truancy, which may result in an immediate arrest of the parent on the charge of contributing to the unruly behavior of a child. The parent or guardian will be placed in the custody of the sheriff, and a bond and court appearance date will be set within 48 hours of the arrest.

•Finding probable cause exists that the child is the victim of educational neglect, which is a ground for removal from the parent or guardian. The child would be placed in the custody of the Department of Children’s Services or DCS, which would be responsible for finding a temporary placement of the child until we return to court within 72 hours for a preliminary hearing.

•DCS can be ordered to investigate the child’s home and or work services with the family.

Later in the letter Judge Johnson states, “As I have stated many times before, my goal is not to incarcerate parents or assess large fines.”

According to, chronic absence is more than just being non-compliant with school rules like truancy. Chronic absence counts all absences whether excused or unexcused, even suspensions. That means no matter the reason a child might be missing from school it is doing some harm. There are always extenuating circumstances with health issues and family emergencies, but even those count against a child and the school system ultimately. Currently, chronic absenteeism counts against a school’s letter grade, which will be a big issue in November when letter grades are released for schools.

One of the hardest challenges with a chronically absent student is for the school system to not assume the parent of the child does not care that they are missing school. There are a plethora of reasons why getting to school can be hard on a family unit. One big reason for chronic absenteeism around Humboldt is socio-economical problems at home. Lennon and Dr. Epperson stated there might be an underlying cause such as homelessness, no clean clothes, no gas for the car or other reasons people typically will not seek out help for because of shame, which in turn harms a child’s education. It is a hard place to be in, but Humboldt City Schools steps in where they can in order to get a child into school every day.

“The fights we fight, people have no idea,” expressed Dr. Epperson. “The little things we do [for the whole child] help us with the bigger things. We don’t brag about it, we just do it because we know we have to help kids.”

During this attendance awareness month, do your best to make sure your child is present and accounted for at school so they can put their best foot forward in education and in life.

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