Education

Will CMS charge thousands with truancy crime? What you need to know about absences.

District Judge Paige McThenia considers one of the CMS cases brought before her at a revamped truancy court March 29. It's part of a push to force parents to get serious about getting their kids to school.
District Judge Paige McThenia considers one of the CMS cases brought before her at a revamped truancy court March 29. It's part of a push to force parents to get serious about getting their kids to school. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

If more than 19,000 students were chronically absent last year, could Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools press truancy charges against all those families?

Can a child's medical crisis get a parent in legal trouble?

With two developments related to school attendance converging, confusion is understandable.

CMS recently released new data on chronic absenteeism, disclosing shockingly high rates among some high schools. Meanwhile, the district is also working with judges and prosecutors to make truancy court more effective against parents who violate North Carolina's attendance law.

Both are steps toward making sure that students who need the benefits of public education are present to get it. Here's what you need to know to sort things out.

What's the difference between chronic absence and truancy?

Chronic absence refers to students who miss at least 10 percent of a school year for any reason. In the CMS calendar, that means 18 or more absences.

Parents start to run afoul of the compulsory attendance law when students ages 7 to 16 accumulate 10 unexcused absences. Absences are excused when students miss school because of medical problems or death in the family, as long as there's a note from home.

Days missed because a child is suspended count toward chronic absence but not truancy.

Who decides when to prosecute parents for truancy violations?

State law requires schools to notify parents after three unexcused absences, and after six the school must send a letter spelling out the possibility of criminal prosecution. When the tally hits 10, schools must meet with parents to determine whether the adults have "made a good faith effort to comply with the law."

The CMS student services department reviews schools' truancy reports and decides whether to seek prosecution. Last school year the district reviewed 118 cases and submitted criminal complaints on 42. When the district files a complaint, a magistrate issues a summons and the sheriff's office serves it to the parents.

Violation of the truancy law is a misdemeanor that can be punished by up to 120 days in jail or a fine set by the court.

Why is CMS calling attention to chronic absence now?

Chronic absentee rates are part of a new CMS equity report and school performance dashboard. National researchers have suggested that chronic absence drives the persistently low performance of many black, Hispanic and low-income students on measures of academic success.

Which schools have the highest rates of chronic absence?

The highest rates by far were at special or alternative schools. Turning Point Academy, where students with severe discipline problems are assigned temporarily, reported 88 percent of its students as chronically absent. The rate was 55 percent at Lincoln Heights Academy, for students with behavioral disorders, and 41 percent at Metro School, for students with serious physical and mental disabilities.

Among regular schools Garinger and Vance high schools top the list, with just over 37 percent of students chronically absent last school year. Others with at least 30 percent chronically absent were West Charlotte High (36 percent), Harding High (33 percent), West Meck High and Walter G. Byers K-8 School (31 percent).

Two others, Martin Luther King Middle School and Druid Hills PreK-8 Academy, topped 25 percent.

Which have the lowest rates?

The only schools with no students chronically absent last year were small, selective high schools located on Central Piedmont Community College campuses: Cato, Harper and Levine middle college high schools.

Eighty-two of 171 schools had chronic absentee rates lower than 10 percent. Most of them were elementary schools.

How are chronic absence rates related to race and poverty?

Schools with high concentrations of poverty were far more likely to have high levels of chronic absence, especially in the older grades. Most of the students in high-poverty schools are black or Hispanic. And race made a difference at every poverty level.

For instance, black and Hispanic students in low-poverty schools were less likely to be chronically absent than black and Hispanic counterparts in high-poverty schools. But they were roughly twice as likely to be chronically absent as their white classmates in low-poverty schools.

Why do those connections matter?

CMS, like every district in America, invests millions of dollars and incalculable effort to improve the prospects of poor, African-American and Hispanic students. Results are often underwhelming.

Some people may use chronic absence data to argue that such efforts are wasted because the problems lie with families and culture, rather than schools.

Others will cite the need to support families in crisis, whether through more school social workers or broader support from the community.

Absence rates can also be used to argue that schools must become more welcoming to students of color. For instance, there are likely to be calls to recruit more nonwhite teachers and to reduce implicit racial bias that can lead to large numbers of black males being suspended.

Where can I learn more?

The CMS website, www.cms.k12.nc.us, includes a blue button at the top of the page to read Breaking the Link, which analyzes districtwide trends. Just below that, click Performance Dashboard to get school-by-school details on chronic absenteeism, demographics and academic performance.

Attendance Works, www.attendanceworks.org, offers information about national research and efforts to reduce chronic absence.

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