‘Absences are up’: G-E-T schools fight truancy issues with new comprehensive rule
As the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District — along with public schools across the country — battles growing attendance issues following a global pandemic, administrators hope a new rule will help keep students in their buildings more often.
Overall attendance in the district has dropped to 89.9 percent this school year, a decrease from the 2018-19 attendance rate of 93 percent, according to data shared by G-E-T pupil services director Scott Moline at last Monday’s school board meeting.
Those numbers include excused absences such as appointments and illnesses.
All students are required to attend school between the ages of six and 18 in Wisconsin and are allowed up to 10 absences each year. A student is considered truant when they are absent without an acceptable excuse for part of a school day or more. Habitual truancy refers to students who miss five or more days.
During the pandemic, some students missed as many as 30 days in a year. Now the adjustment back to pre-pandemic expectations has created a moving target, the district told the board.
“It’s kind of a new issue across the country. This isn’t just us. It’s a national thing,” Moline said.
A more comprehensive breakdown of the data is currently being conducted by the district, Superintendent Michele Butler told the Times.
Vacations are up in the district, too, middle school principal Pete Peterson said, as are mental health concerns.
Each school has “a couple” kids that are habitually truant, but the number of days missed overall is higher than before the COVID pandemic forced families to keep their kids at home.
“That’s pretty standard,” Butler said. “I think back to when I was principal, and we always had a few. … you become very intimately familiar with these students because you’re working so hard to help them and their families through whatever it is.”
The G-E-T schools continue to work to help kids, and that intervention looks different for every situation, Butler said. Some families just need a phone call, and others need help with the introduction of transportation assistance or further intervention such as a fine.
“When you know there are kids that are habitually truant, you’re never satisfied. You want that number to be zero,” Butler said. “Students missing lots of school, you know they’re missing education and falling behind, and we don’t want that for any student. That’s why I’m pleased our administrators are very committed to try to get every student here as much as possible.”
County meeting led to new district rule
Part of the reason for Monday’s school board presentation was a follow-up on an April meeting with county leaders to combat growing concerns over truancy.
The April 20 meeting was held at the county administrative building in Whitehall with District Attorney John Sacia, Judge Rian Radtke, Human Services Director Deb Suchla and county school administrators.
The district’s administrative rule regarding truancy was modified after that meeting to make sure the district is consistent with other efforts.
“That meeting was kind of a wake up call of ‘Oh, here’s some things we thought were aligned’, and they weren’t. So we’re currently revising that rule to align,” Butler said.
The new district rule states the following interventions based on days missed:
• Five days: Parent conversation on reason for absences and asking if the district can help.
• 10 days: Students are added to a “tier two” list to consider interventions and support, and a letter is sent to the family informing them they have reached the maximum amount of absences under state law and district rules.
• 15 days: Principals send a second notice, the school social worker is notified of the situation and a meeting is scheduled with the parent.
• 18 days: Principal files for truancy notice with the County Department of Health Services.
• 20 days: Principal follows up with social worker and DHS after 40 days of working through truancy. If child is under 10, case is referred to Child Protective Services. If no progress is made, a truancy citation is given to the family from the district attorney.
• 25 days: Another follow up with those involved and a second citation and fine.
Fines are a last measure after schools and other officials have tried hands-on intervention. The cost of such fines depends on whether the citation comes from the local municipality or the county.
Fines are given to students, but parents may begin to be fined for students under 10.
The numbers are not an exact science because missing school for an appointment doesn’t mean a student has an attendance issue, Butler said, but one thing is clear from the data.
“Absences are up, and we’re seeing students miss more school than pre-pandemic numbers,” Butler said.
Habitual truancy cases include one or two students per building with a handful of habitual cases at the high school, Butler said.
Board: Issues are a concern, intervention welcomed
Trempealeau Elementary Principal Sam Ruud shared two different stories on Monday, one in which intervention worked for a family and has yet to work for another.
The district will not give up, he said, and Butler agreed.
“We have our successes and we have our not successes. But our principals will tell you, they don’t give up real easily,” Butler said. “They try everything.”
Multiple board members said the intervention is necessary, and they hope to see improved numbers.
“I was also really glad to see the social worker, the psychologist and all that,” board member Paul Kinzer said of mental health concerns and truancy. “I just remember when I was that age and I was in school, it was all ‘The stick.’ There was no support.”
Harold Olson pointed to the attendance rate for upperclassmen at the high school, which is below 80 percent for this year.
Those numbers are skewed by one or two students being habitually truant, officials said, but Olson took issue with that attendance and wants quicker intervention from the county human services department.
“You’re telling me that the average student, juniors and seniors, are missing 35 days of school? That’s atrocious,” Olson said.
Board member Pat Malone said the district is fighting the issue with the new policy and intervention, and she was happy to see the district intervene before a student hits high absence numbers.
“They are not waiting until somebody has spent 35 days loafing on the couch watching Netflix. They are observing behavior, they’re making the appropriate contacts as soon as possible,” Malone said. “And that’s significant.”