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Utah schools tackles tardies with fines, detention, holding up graduation

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 2011 11:59 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah high schoolers transition from an unstructured summer to a school life governed by bells, it's not uncommon to see teenagers frantically racing down halls to get to class on time.

The consequences for not making it to class on time vary from school to school, with some more strict than others. But, administrators agree not tackling tardiness has  consequences that can reach beyond the classroom.

"If they're not in class on time, learning, then where are they?" said East High School Principal Paul Sagers. "That's where you have your school violations, that's where you have your fights."

There is no state law or State Board of Education rule that details how schools should deal with less than prompt students. Carol Lear, director of law and legislation at the State Office of Education, said there is a state legal precedent that discourages schools from tying attendance to an academic grades. That means students who do well in a class shouldn't have their tardies in that class count against their grade without a way for them to make it up.

"Those kind of attendance-related issues … should not be a part of the academic grade," Lear said of the precedent.

But that doesn't mean schools have no recourse when it comes to perpetually late students. Tardiness is disruptive to the learning environment, and schools need to have leverage in order to discourage it, Sagers said.

Last year, East implemented a fine system for students who don't clear up their tardies through detention.

School administrators "sweep the halls" walking through the school's four stories a few minutes after the tardy bell rings between every class. Students still in the hall are rounded up and issued citations, which can be worked off by attending one after school detention. Students who fail to make it up within a certain time period are fined $5.

Once the school implemented the new policy, the change was remarkable, Sagers said. "We had parents calling in saying 'my goodness my kids are rushing me out the door.'"

Lear said that while tardies aren't supposed to be tied to academic grades, schools can have graduation requirements that hinge on things like attendance and behavior.

In order to graduate from Murray High, for instance, students must meet "citizenship" requirements. According to the district's online attendance policy, students who are tardy to a course two or more times receive an "unsatisfactory" mark in citizenship for that class. In order to have the "U" remediated, they must attend one 45-minute detention before or after school within 10 days of the tardy, according to the policy.

Students who are 10 or more minutes late, however, are considered absent, and receive a "U" that requires three 45 minute detentions to remediate.

It can be hard to strike the right balance between discouraging tardiness and being too punitive, Lear said. She's heard from some parents who feel schools are so strict on tardies, parents would "rather have them miss the class and then write them a excuse."

Ultimately, it's up to the local administration to decide what works best for them.

The policy at Riverton High School in the Jordan School District has been in the works for more than five years, said Principal Brad Sorensen. It's been tweaked and measured to ensure it's not too punitive or too lax, he said. Students are allowed two tardies per class per term. Beyond that, they have to go to attendance school after class or else their grades will be docked.

Lear said the most effective policies she's seen are those that don't seek to punish, but motivate instead. Teachers who have scheduled quizzes at the beginning of class or go the extra mile to make their classes meaningful can motivate kids to be on time, she said.

When teachers and administrators don't have a handle on the problem, all students suffer, she said.

"Really, you should start figuring out some strategies to get students to class on time," she said. "It's overwhelming when you're trying to teach classes when you've got kids coming in and out."

E-mail: mfarmer@desnews.com, Twitter: mollyfarmer

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