Alison Yin / EdSource

California law requires students to attend school or graduate from high school by the age of 18.

Alison Yin / EdSource

California law requires students to attend school or graduate from high school by the age of 18.

Black students in California have a much higher rate of unexcused absences from school than their white counterparts, sometimes leading to disciplinary consequences that can further disrupt their education, according to newly released data.

The data, released in November, represents the first time the California Department of Education has broken down absenteeism rates by reason for missing school, regardless of whether the student was excused because of illness or a doctor’s appointment, or defined an unexcused lack of school were made without a “valid” reason. Lack of transportation to school, one of the most common reasons students miss school, is usually unexcused absenteeism.

Data refer to two school years, 2017-18 and 2018-19, before schools switched to distance learning in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Districts with high pre-pandemic absenteeism rates are expected to have similarly high rates when schools return to face-to-face classes.

According to the data, black students missed an average of 13.2 days of school over the 2018-19 period, compared with 9.1 days for white students. Of those absences, schools recorded 52.7% of black student absences as unexcused – meaning they had no authorized reason to leave school and may face disciplinary action. By comparison, 29.4% of white student absences were unexcused.

“That discrepancy is problematic,” said Clea McNeely, a research professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who researched trends in student participation. “If you search the school for school data, you will find that colored students – black and Native American students in particular – who miss school are put on a criminal path that pushes them further out of school instead of them support way to keep them in school. “

Each school district has its own protocol, but in general absenteeism is excused when a student is sick, attending a funeral, having a doctor’s appointment, or performing a pre-arranged activity such as “take your daughter to work”. Unexcused absences can be anything else, but common causes include caring for younger siblings, support from a grandparent, or lack of transportation to school – issues that are more likely to affect students from low-income families.

Although students from all backgrounds occasionally skip classes, that’s only a small percentage of unexcused absences, especially among elementary and middle school students, McNeely said. Most unexcused absences are due to circumstances beyond the student’s control, such as a lack of transportation, she said.

States fund schools on a per-visit basis regardless of whether student absences are excused or unexcused. However, students with multiple unexcused absences can face a number of penalties, such as: B. A disciplinary committee hearing, incarceration, or inability to take tests or homework. Under the state criminal code, students with 18 or more unexcused absences in a school year can be considered chronically pregnant and referred to local law enforcement agencies. Her parents could face fines of up to $ 2,000 and a year in prison.

In the meantime, students with excused absences have little or no consequences. They are usually allowed to catch up on tasks and get help catching up. You will never be referred to law enforcement agencies. Some counties even mark students excused when they are on family vacation.

The result is a two-tier system that helps some students miss classes but criminalize others, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit aimed at improving student participation.

“We need to look closely at how the school leaving system works and ask ourselves whether the school leaving system itself needs to be transformed,” said Chang.

For some students, repeated absences can affect their academic performance and a student’s attitude towards school in general, even if the situation never leads to a hearing.

Shawn Brown is now a senior in high school.

When Shawn Brown was in Central Valley Middle School, there was a time when going to school was a constant struggle. His parents’ car broke down and he had to take a bus across town. Almost every day Brown was either late or absent.

“All the time. So many times I’ve been marked absent,” said 17-year-old Brown, who is black. “It was a double problem because I had problems because I had missed school and then I was left like that that I didn’t know what was going on in class. It was bad. “

The period lasted about a month. Nobody at school offered to help him, he said, although his parents were informed of his sporadic visit.

Every school, county, and county in California has its own attendance policy, and some are more punitive than others. Alameda County takes an approach that aims to get students back to school rather than punishing parents. For the past 17 years, Alameda Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick has run a program for chronically absent students and their families that has been more than 90% successful in getting students back into class.

School districts refer families to Drenick’s office when a student has been seriously absent, such as missing more than 100 days of a 180-day school year. Drenick’s office calls the family to court, but then – instead of a fine and jail term – the families are given access to counseling, health services, bus passes, and anything else they need to keep their children at school. The program is currently being run virtually as the courts are closed for face-to-face hearings.

“Our goal is not to punish. Although it’s a court environment, the atmosphere is 100% warm and focused on problem solving, ”Drenick said.

Often times, families’ difficulties are related to poverty, not neglect or irresponsibility, she said. For example, parents may not have a car to take their children to school, or sometimes they don’t have the money to pay for bus or BART fares, or they need babysitting for younger siblings. Or parents who don’t speak English may have an appointment and need their child to translate. In some cases, students have chronic health problems such as asthma, but parents lack the money to buy inhalers and air filters.

In some cases, parents do not understand California law that requires children to attend school between the ages of 6 and 18 or through high school. In one case, a parent worked on cemetery shifts and could not take their elementary school child to school because she went to bed at 6 a.m. Drenick explained that, as tired as the parents may be, they still have a legal responsibility to get their children to go to school and they should find another time to sleep.

In most cases, parents are anxious to get their children to go to school, but face obstacles, she said. The DA office works with the county health department and a local nonprofit to provide families with everything they need, and even to visit their homes if necessary.

“As prosecutors, it’s in our best interests. Our goal is to create safer communities, and this is one area where we can be proactive by keeping children in school and out of the criminal justice system, ”said Drenick.

Riverside County has taken a similar approach. Amir Alavi, former prosecutor and director of chronic absenteeism reduction for the Riverside County Office of Education, has set up “attendance teams” at individual school sites to solve the problems families face when their children go to school.

Teams can include teachers, counselors, administrators, employees, a school nurse, parents, and students. If the student has any health problems he will connect them to a local clinic. If the student has emotional challenges, the team can offer advice. If the family needs help with transportation, the team will arrange it.

“We found that a low attendance student was almost always due to larger underlying needs,” Alavi said. “And in my experience as a prosecutor, the punitive approach to participation is not effective. … We do not want to impose penalties on families who, frankly, already have serious difficulties. “

The method worked. In schools with “attendance teams,” absenteeism has decreased significantly, he said. The program continued online during the school campus closure and will return to face-to-face meetings after the campus reopens.

Brown, the Fresno student struggling with the visit, got to school on time when his parents got a new car and his grades went up too. He was even recognized by his school for flipping his grades. He’s now a senior in high school and hopes to enroll in college next year.

Schools should be more personable when students miss school, he said. As a middle school student, he felt frustrated and defeated when he failed to make it to class, and his grades suffered as a result.

“You don’t know what kids go through at home,” he said. “Sometimes it is hard.”

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