Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Districts Cracking Down on Tardy Students

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Springfield, Va.

School administrators can recite a laundry list of reasons students give for arriving at classes late. But in many districts, using an excuse like "the tardy bell rang early" is likely to land a student in detention or in school on Saturday.

School districts nationwide appear to be turning to tougher tardy policies in response to growing numbers of students who arrive late at school or to classes.

Some students have balked at what they say are unfair tardy policies, but administrators say they are trying to ensure that students receive the maximum of instruction with the minimum of disruption.

Here in the 147,000-student Fairfax County, Va., district, the 12th-largest in the nation, the tardy policy is a common one echoed by those of numerous districts across the country: A student who is late to class three times receives one unexcused absence; three unexcused absences in a class result in a failing grade for the quarter.

According to Edward A. Barker Jr., the principal of Washington Irving Middle School here in this Washington suburb, the policy has been in place for several years but has been vigorously enforced only in the past few years.

Since school officials stepped up their efforts to curb student lateness, he said, the problem has declined.

But, school officials say, parents, students, and teachers must work together to end chronic lateness.

"The process of excusing a child who is late to class may include looking closely at the student's schedule and maybe figuring out what class he's coming from and what class he is going to," Mr. Barker said.

Seventh graders at the 1,200-student school may have to leave a class on the second floor at one end of the building and travel to the first floor at the opposite end of the school--all within the five minutes allotted between classes.

That time between classes becomes more of a crunch for students who attempt to socialize with their friends in the bustling hallways, Mr. Barker pointed out.

"Kids get to networking, and they get distracted," Mr. Barker said. "We have to remember that learning is incidental to social life in middle school."

California Protest

Other districts have found that more stringent measures are the only means of curbing student lateness.

In the Jordan school district in Salt Lake City, each time a middle or high school student is late to class results in a 2 percent reduction in the student's grade in that class. Students are allowed to make up grade reductions by serving detention.

About 120 students at Arlington High School in Riverside, Calif., staged a walkout last December to protest a new policy that allows teachers to lock students out of class if they are tardy.

Mr. Barker said he believes that strong measures must be taken to curb tardies, but he doesn't see much value in rules that prohibit students from attending classes for which they arrive late. And sending students to the office for passes works contrary to the purpose of ending lateness, he said.

"There wouldn't be much point in the youngster going to class," Mr. Barker said. "Don't send them to the office, where they'll lose another 10 to 12 minutes."

At Irving Middle School, teachers are told to note student tardies in their roll books and follow up on them later.

Dennis Johnson, a spokesman for the Jordan district, defended his district's tardy policy that reduces students' grades for lateness, but said that all rules must have an alternative.

"We had had a serious tardiness problem a couple of years ago," he said. "It seemed as if the students weren't taking the class bells very seriously.

"Once the students knew we were serious about this, the problem decreased dramatically," Mr. Johnson said.

'You Owe Me Time'

The use of in-school suspension is commonly used for students who are habitually late.

Karen Johnson, the principal of Arlington High School in Riverside, explained her district's new get-tough policy on tardiness in which late students are locked out.

"Our students have to understand that there will be consequences for their behavior," she said. "I want our kids to learn to honor the instructional time and learn a habit that will be useful in the work world: arriving on time."

The district's tardy policy calls for teachers to lock classroom doors once the late bell rings. Administrators then "sweep" the halls, rounding up students who are late and taking them to serve on-campus suspensions.

At Virginia's Washington Irving Middle School, a student may be assigned a day or a half-day in something called alternative instructional assignment.

Parents are notified of the student's infraction, and the student is given a date in AIA. The students work in a room with a computer, and they are monitored to make sure they complete classwork assigned to them.

Mr. Barker said he considers the time students spend in AIA to be productive: It allows them to stay on track with their classmates while removing them from their normal social setting.

"You have to deal with each crisis individually," Mr. Barker said. "But you don't interrupt a student's work schedule unless you have to."

Washington Irving Middle School also offers Saturday school to youngsters who repeatedly are late to class. With parental permission, a student may be assigned to help do yard work, assist a teacher, or help the janitorial staff from 7:45 a.m. until noon on Saturdays.

"I'd rather say to a student 'You owe me time,'" Mr. Barker said. "I don't understand punishing students with the same offense that was committed."

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