Class action

Attendance policy could land students, parents in court

Last spring when the Moffat County School District revised its student attendance policy, school officials wanted to send a message that excessive student absences would not be tolerated.

They did so by creating a policy that would have a student sitting in front of a judge if he or she consistently missed school.

After its first year of implementation, Superintendent Pete Bergmann said the new five-step policy has been a success.

"I feel this new policy has been very effective," he said. "It is hard to compare numbers from last year because we did not have the step process in place. But my gut feeling is student absences are down."

The new policy states that if a student were in danger of being absent or tardy an excess of 10 percent of the time, a five-step process would be followed in dealing with the student.

The five steps include:

A letter is sent home to parents documenting their child's number of absences and tardiness.

A meeting held with parents, teacher, student and administrator to discuss excessive absences and tardiness from school.

School attendance officer, school resource officer and school personnel contact parents and discuss absences and legal proceedings if student attendance does not improve. At this time, the administration, school attendance officer and social worker review the attendance record and determine whether student absences are excused or unexcused.

A joint agency intervention meeting is held with parents. School attendance officer gives parents notice that states any unexcused absence will result in filing a petition to the court.

Parents referred to court system. If a student is absent from school again and it is deemed unexcused, a petition for enforcement of the Compulsory Attendance Law is filed by the school attendance officer.

"Step five is the teeth to the policy saying we take this very seriously," Bergmann said.

"When we have a situation where a parent or child are not complying we will take them to court and ask for an order from a judge that the child attend school."

This year, the first step was implemented 307 times, the second step 85 times, the third step 12 times, the fourth step four times and the fifth step four times.

Bergmann said there is not a problem with attendance in the overall school population, but this policy addresses a select few who seem to have problems.

"The total attendance district wide is not a problem," he said. "We have an attendance rate of close to 94 or 95 percent district wide every year. Overall attendance is not as much of a problem as excessive absences for a select few. There is a small delinquent population that this policy addresses assuring they get to school."

Craig Middle School Principal Steve Wiersma said the policy has been effective at his institution.

"It seems to have helped," he said. "We've had far fewer students with excessive absences this year."

The key is early intervention and notification of parents when a child is missing school, he said.

"We had a policy previously that didn't allow us to put effective intervention to work," he said.

"We now have one that is well ordered and involves parents early."

Bergmann said an important issue is being addressed in the policy.

"The school district is making a statement that excessive absences at school will not be tolerated," he said. "What we've found is attendance is extremely important to a child's education and achievement. A school district has an obligation to society to make sure kids get to school. If they don't it hurts their chances of succeeding later in life."

It is important that steps are outlined in the policy, Bergmann said.

"I want to make it clear that even though Moffat County is taking a strong stance with the last step of the policy, we are taking a proactive stance with the first four steps," he said. "We hope that students never get to step five."

He said the district recognizes that at a young age excessive absences are a situation where parents are

at fault.

But as a child grows older parents don't often have the control they want.

"In first and second grade there is neglect on the part of parents in not getting their children to school," he said. "Then at some point in time a child decides he or she will not attend. This is when parents are frustrated."

No matter where the problem is, the school district has one priority in the new policy.

"We just don't want to lose kids," Bergmann said.

"We want them to be educated, literate members of society."

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