A state lawmaker from Ohio wants to change the way the state deals with truancy. Instead of sending truant students to court, Republican Rep. Jeffery Rezabek wants schools to develop programs to help these kids get back on track.
Rezabek, who is an attorney and a guardian ad litem, says he’s seen the effects of students being thrown into the legal system for missing too much school, and he wants schools to bring all of the interested parties together before it reaches that point.
“We wanted the school to have at least an administrator, the student, and the parent at a minimum [to] develop a plan for this child and for the family,” said Rezabek. “You have to look at each family individually and help them with what their specific problems are.”
Rezabek points to a time when he saw this type of intervention work. He says a student was sent to court after missing 45 days of school, but neither the child nor the parent attended the hearing. Then, she missed another 45 days of school before a teacher intervened, and the girl was referred to child protective services. He says the consensus was to wait until the next school year to deal with the issue, but he found that unacceptable. So, he, a caseworker, and a magistrate joined forces to find a solution, which included the child going to live with her brother.
“Because three people—four people including the brother—got involved in this child’s life, we corrected the truancy issue,” said Rezabek. “The child, who was more than likely struggling, did not want to go to school, ends up in the next two years getting caught up on her schoolwork, is a straight A student, and is now tutoring students.”
Rezabek’s bill, which recently passed the state house, would require schools to keep detailed data about student attendance and would also prohibit schools from suspending kids for truancy.
“It’s not the correct solution,” said Rezabek. “If the only reason you’re suspending the child is because they’re truant, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The bill would also stop measuring truancy in days and instead measure it in hours.
“Some students realized if I check in at the beginning of the day and take off, that counts as a day that I didn’t miss, but yet they’re still not in school, and they’re still not learning,” said Rezabek. “If we go to hours, we’re actually counting the hours the student is in school and learning. We think it’s a better way to keep everybody accountable.”
Rezabek says the causes of truancy vary, but it often starts because of something simple. A child misses the bus, and the parent doesn’t have a way to get him or her to school. But if that small problem isn’t addressed it becomes a much larger issue as the child misses more school and falls further and further behind. And, he says, sometimes students just don’t want to go to class.
“But, some of those may have a learning disability,” said Rezabek. “If you have this small group talk to that child and talk to that parent as to what the issues are, maybe the school can address that and make it a better experience for the child.”
Still, he acknowledges that there are some older students who even after offers of help will continue to skip school repeatedly.
“Then the courts are going to have to deal with it as more of a punishment,” said Rezabek. “We’d rather not do it that way. It doesn’t resolve the underlying issues. I think with the team approach we can tackle many of those issues of what’s happening inside that family as to why this child or the children aren’t going to school.”
The head of Attendance Works, a national research and advocacy group, says this is the type of approach she’d like to see every state take.
“You really want to improve attendance by starting with prevention and early intervention,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works. “You want to save court strategy as a last resort.”
A handful of states have passed legislation that attempts to address truancy through alternative means, including Connecticut and Washington.
Rezabek’s bill is now under consideration in the Ohio senate.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.