Truancy laws create headaches for students with attendance issues

Izzy Gaspar’raj | The Chronicle

When Juliana Ramirez received a letter from Mason City Schools, she was shocked to see that she could be facing a possible court date due to her absences. 

In Ohio, schools are required to take action when a student misses five consecutive days of school, seven days in a month, or twelve days in a school year, excused or unexcused. When students reach or pass these thresholds, students are automatically sent truancy notices through MCS’s computerized attendance system. When this instance occurs, schools have the option to file a truancy charge against that student with legal consequences in court.

In sophomore Juliana Ramirez’s case, she accrued numerous absences from dealing with her mental wellness. She struggles with the effects of bipolar disorder, and these effects caused her to miss school sometimes up to twice a week. 

“One of the symptoms is not being able to wake up in the morning,” Ramirez said. “But, I was also hyper-aware of what was going on in school and how much I was missing without being able to make up the work; it was getting really stressful.”

The letter threatening potential court action did not help her anxiety, but after a meeting with an assistant principal and a guidance counselor, she was able to clear up the situation including having her absences excused. This type of meeting is one that the district holds with families when a student has excessive absences. 

When she received the truancy notices, Ramirez said she felt “helpless” with her situation, not knowing what would happen to her and if it would be on her permanent record. The letter Ramirez received, which is the same sent to all students with numerous absences, mentioned the possibility of being sent to juvenile court, and this potential legal complication caused her additional stress. But, she said that she realizes the absence policies are in place for a reason and acknowledges their legitimacy.

“I understand that the [truancy] rule is there to help,” Ramirez said. “You need to have a certain amount of discipline with kids that take advantage of [missing school]. But for me, I truly couldn’t get up and it was super difficult for me.”

In September of 2021, senior Kunal Ponkshe began to experience chronic stomach issues that caused him to miss almost two weeks of school. Not long after, Ponkshe started receiving the truancy letters from the district. Already feeling unwell due to his illness, the threats of potentially ending up in juvenile court did not help. Ponkshe ended up receiving five truancy notices from the school, despite having sent doctor’s notes to the administration explaining his physical ailments. He said that these notices “surprised” him, as well as overwhelmed him in anticipation of possible consequences to come, and these truancy notices added “an extra level of stress” for him along with the missing work, too.

Senior Johnathan Van Valkenburgh has persistent migraines that cause him to have to stay home from school about twice a month. In November, he had an extended absence due to surgery, aimed at eliminating his migraines.  

Once his absences started to add up, Van Valkenburgh received truancy notices from the district. Similar to Ponkshe, Van Valkenburgh said he was worried about the truancy notices prior to obtaining doctor’s notes to excuse his absences. Missing school often makes him feel “guilty”, even though he feels he has a reason. Van Valkenburgh also said that he wishes there were not so many obstacles in getting absences excused, including always having to obtain a doctor’s note. 

“I have chronic migraines, and there’s nothing a doctor can do other than just get me ibuprofen, which is something I already have,” Van Valkenburgh said. “So, if I’m in a lot of pain and can’t really go to school, I feel like it should be an option where the parents can call in and make it [an] excused [absence].”

When a parent notifies the school of an absence, it is usually marked as excused, but as part of Ohio law, both excused and unexcused absences trigger sending a truancy warning home to students.

Mary Steed works in the Mason High School attendance office where she manages student absences. Steed said that absences are “generally excused” when parents are involved in notifying the school of a student’s absence. But, some examples, such as “traffic, transportation issues, and oversleeping” qualify as unexcused absences. 

Steed said that the school’s actions regarding student absences are for the most part dictated by the state of Ohio, and it is her job to adhere to those mandates. These standards include hour amounts that define truancy. In addition to sending truancy notices, the school also sets up meetings between counselors, administrators, and families to help improve students’ educational experience and try to understand their absences. Due to the large number of students in MHS, it is often difficult to juggle the many absence cases.

“The school is overwhelmed with the many issues that confront the students and families of such a large population,” Steed said. “Other than that, I feel we do the best we can under the circumstances. There is a system in place that is effective in notifying students and parents of existing attendance issues and offers various interventions and supports to aid in getting students to school regularly.”

Assistant Principal Tina Drake is one of a few administrative staff members at MHS who manage student absences and truancy. Her job is to hold intervention meetings with families and students to make sure students don’t “fall through the cracks” with their attendance. At these meetings, they create intervention plans that are aimed at improving the student’s attendance. Drake said that these plans typically work, but if they don’t, that’s when the school would choose to file a truancy claim with the juvenile court. 

Drake believes that attendance is vital to a good education and that how the school handles truancy is reasonable and effective in getting students to school each day. She sees a high school student’s current job as attending school and said it is comparable to a job, too.

“I think attendance is crucial,” Drake said. “Our job at the high school is to help students get ready for the real world. At a job, if you miss this much work, you’re going to get fired. I kind of look at that with our attendance policy.”

Furthermore, Drake said that the most important thing in handling absences related to illness is to provide appropriate documentation to the school, such as doctor’s notes so that the school understands what is occurring. This documentation can allow absences to be excused more easily and helps the administration understand the circumstances surrounding student absences.

“I think it’s so important to have concrete documentation justifying what the absence is so that we have it on record,” Drake said. “That would decrease the likelihood of anything happening because we just need to know what’s going on and we need the right documentation in place.”

Even though these students recognize the challenge the district faces in dealing with absences, the anxiety they feel when they receive notices with the threats of juvenile court is very unsettling. 

“I was stressed out because I thought [the truancy notices] were going to be on my record,” Ramirez said. “And I personally care a lot about my grades, and I thought it was going to affect my academic record, and I didn’t want it to do that. I felt very helpless in the situation.”

Ponkshe said it was confusing and difficult trying to figure out how to work with the school to fix his situation and even though it eventually worked out, he feels that the school should take more responsibility in working with students who are truant to figure out what is going on with the student, and then take appropriate action.

“If this happens to anyone else, I want the school to be more active in the way they deal with truancy because I feel like the entire process is pretty hidden,” Ponkshe said. “There’s no transparency; I still don’t know how the truancy system works.”

Illustration by Alisha Verma