Should schools allow students to take excused mental health days?
In previous years, a willing parent might have called their child’s school to report them as sick as an excuse to stay home to deal with emotional exhaustion, to see a therapist, or just to take a break. But a student-supported Oregon bill proposes explicitly adding “mental or behavioral health” to a list of reasons for excused absences, alongside physical sickness. Current law allows individual districts to determine the range of issues that will be considered an excused absence, and many don’t include mental health, the bill’s supporters say.
The measure comes as schools are increasingly concerned about students’ mental health, motivated by data that shows climbing rates of conditions like anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Some have also taken a closer look at the ways they support students with such mental health concerns as part of broader conversations about school safety.
But it also comes as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law, puts pressure on schools to drive down high rates of chronic absenteeism—large amounts of missed school time that includes excused and unexcused absences and out-of-school suspensions. Given those pressures, some educators may be hesitant to create a new reason for absences.
The proposed Oregon bill was suggested by a group of high school students called Students for a Healthy Oregon, which also supports a measure that would require annual mental health screenings for middle and high school students.
“By not explicitly recognizing mental health as an excused absence we are adding further stigma to a common and treatable condition,” the group said in a proposal to lawmakers.
At a public hearing this week, behavioral health providers and students spoke in favor of the bill. Some other witnesses told lawmakers students may abuse the new form of excused absences if they didn’t do their homework or study for a test.
Carol Greenough, a retired clinical psychologist, said she supported the bill with some caveats. From her written testimony:
Students have testified to the serious impact that missing school for an emotional problem has on their grades when it is treated as an unexcused absence. In a perfect world, this bill could stand by itself. However, in too many of our schools, absences are not fully tracked and an excused absence is not responded to, even if it is repeated many times. I have worked with many students over the years who suffer from school anxiety and who find it hard to get to class. Their parents responded with appropriate search for answers and attempts to return their kids to school as soon as possible. But in other circumstances, parents have neither the resources or, even, awareness of what to do when a child refuses to go to school. As long as the child stays at home, the problem is ignored by the school. However, the school is frequently the child’s best chance of identifying the emotional problem and getting help.
Some of Greenough’s concerns may be answered by provisions in ESSA. The law requires schools to publicly report rates of chronic absenteeism—regardless of whether the absences were excused—and many states, including Oregon, have incorporated those measures into their school accountability systems. Supporters of that plan say it will encourage schools to work with families to engage and support students and to address non-academic issues like illness, a lack of transportation, and family issues.
Photo: Getty Images.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.