COMMENTARY | Effective for the 2011-2012 school year, Arkansas Act 1223 changes the way public school districts handle student attendance. The act removes the distinction between excused and unexcused absences. Act 1223 states that each individual school district is responsible for setting its own attendance policies, including the allowable number of absences.
The intent of 1223 was to make it more difficult for students to skip school. Under the old law, students either had an excused or unexcused absence. It was easy for students to skip school using the allowable number of unexcused absences. By removing the different types of absences, Act 1223 was making it clear to students they need to be in school. Another purpose of the act was to reduce the dropout rate.
What supporters of Act 1223 failed to realize is that sometimes students miss school for valid reasons. Children with chronic medical problems or disabilities miss more school than their healthy peers. The act removed the parent’s ability to send in a doctor’s note to excuse periods where a child did not attend school. Under the new law, a parent must petition the school district for an exemption from the attendance law before the maximum number of days are missed. There is no verbiage in the law that states a school district has to allow the exemption.
The new act specifically addresses granting additional absences for 4-H, FFA and FHA activities and for children who have primary caregivers on active duty in the military. There is nothing in the act that gives exemption for medical conditions or physical disabilities.
The act states “Before a student accumulates the maximum number of absences allowed in a school district’s student attendance policy, the student or the student’s parent, guardian, or person in loco parentis may petition the school administration or school district administration for special arrangements to address the student’s absences.”
Failure to comply with the school district attendance policy will result in the excessive absences being forwarded to the prosecuting authority of the school district with the student’s parent or guardian being subject to civil fines not to exceed $500. The civil action will be filed as a “family in need of intervention action” in the local circuit court.
A memo was sent to school administrators by State Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell to help clarify the intent of the law. Arkansas News reports the memo states children with medical conditions can apply for an exemption with the school’s principal or request a 504 plan–a modification to a normal school program for students who miss a lot of school.
The memo did not address how school districts with community truancy boards should handle exemptions for medical or other valid reasons. Nothing in the memo or in Act 1223 states that requests for exemptions have to be granted, nor is there anything written about an appeals process if a request is denied.
It appears there was little or no consideration for disabled children in Act 1223. Parents who have children with chronic issues are at the mercy of the school’s principal or district’s truancy board. To reduce the truancy and dropout rates, Arkansas must address the underlying reasons for dropping out. Changing the attendance policy is addressing the symptom without curing the disease.