Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Call to Action on the Truancy Bill: Part 1

Truancy Bill Part 1: Why the call to action is necessary

Over the past couple of months here in California, Senator Leno's "Truancy Bill" has been a big topic in the world of public education. The bill's well-intentioned point is to "improve efforts to fight truancy," and as an effect of those efforts, hopefully do something to prevent kids from becoming juvenile delinquents. As noble as this sounds, and as much as we need to combat truancy issues in our schools, as written, the serious negative consequences for truancy (including jail time for parents or hefty fines) could be applied in circumstances involving students with disabilities in a harmful and unjust manner.

Take for example some of the following scenarios:

* Parents disagree with the school district's offer of placement and services because they believe that the child requires intensive 1:1 instruction or an ABA (applied behavioral analysis) based program. They remove their child from school for part or all of the school day, providing appropriate notice as required under special education laws, and place their child in a private program at their own expense. Case law recognizes the importance of allowing Parents the opportunity to fund private placements and services, and take the financial risk of seeking reimbursement for those programs, rather than requiring Parents to leave their child in a "potentially inappropriate" setting. This right would be virtually stripped if those Parents would face jail time as a penalty for invoking this process.

* Child with a disability has serious anxiety and depression, and refuses to go to school. Although not physically "sick" in a traditional sense, the child's health and well-being may be affected if he/she attends school with such extreme levels of anxiety, and Parents keep the child home until alternatives can be agreed upon or supports can be put into place. Parents will not be able to make these decisions about their child's welfare under this bill.

* Child with a disability has social/emotional and/or behavioral difficulties that include school refusal. Parents are doing everything they can to attempt to get the child to school or encourage school attendance, but school district officials don't believe they are doing enough. Those Parents may face the penalties called for under this bill.

* Child with a disability has been seriously harassed or bullied by other students because of his/her disability, and Parents have reported the bullying to school officials, who have done nothing in response to prevent the bullying from occurring. Parents do not feel the school is a safe environment because of the physical harm being caused to the child. These Parents would not be able to keep their child home until safety is ensured. Effectively, school personnel who "ignore" such reports of bullying would be empowered to do so.

These are hypotheticals based on scenarios that special education attorneys, advocates and parents see and experience on a regular basis. There is no language in the bill to provide an exception for such scenarios, and the language that is included is vague and easy to misinterpret, misapply, and even abuse. Most alarmingly, perhaps, is the lack of clarity as to what constitutes a "chronic" truancy problem giving rise to the penalties it imposes. Because these penalties are triggered by missing 10% of the school year to date, without further clarification, interpretation could lead to imposition of penalties for a very small number of dates depending on the time of the school year. (For example, 30 school days, or approximately 6 weeks, into the year, a child who had missed only 3 days would be considered chronically truant.)

The current state of this bill is that it has passed the state Senate and House, and is awaiting the Governor's action on it. Thus, this "call to action" is for Parents, advocates, etc in the special education community to contact Governor Schwarzenegger and request that he veto SB1317, the "truancy bill."

Parts 2 and 3 of this posting will include contact information and a sample letter.

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