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Bill would exclude exemplary students from criminal truancy

Published: Wednesday, March 5 2014 4:20 p.m. MST

East High School students walk out of class to protest the $5 truancy citation policy in Salt Lake City,  Friday, March 30, 2012. The House Education Committee on Wednesday voted in a favor of a bill that would exclude high school students with a 3.5 GPA or higher from a citation of habitual truancy. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) East High School students walk out of class to protest the $5 truancy citation policy in Salt Lake City, Friday, March 30, 2012. The House Education Committee on Wednesday voted in a favor of a bill that would exclude high school students with a 3.5 GPA or higher from a citation of habitual truancy. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Under Utah law, parents can be charged with a class B misdemeanor if their child is deemed habitually truant through pervasive absences.

But a bill that received legislative committee approval Wednesday would exclude students ages 16 and older from receiving a truancy citation as long as they maintain at least a 3.5 grade-point average.

"They’re mastering the content," bill sponsor Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said of high-achieving students. "They know what is going on."

HB399 received a favorable recommendation from the House Education Committee after an 11-2 vote and will now be considered by the full House.

In voting against the bill, Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, questioned whether the law should give special allowances to students who are already in a more fortunate position than their peers.

"I would rather that the rules be applied equally regardless of what your academic standing is," he said.

Nielson gave the example of his own child, who was high-achieving in school but involved in a matter related to juvenile justice. Nielson said the experience was valuable and formative, and he doesn't think it helps children to save them from the consequences of their actions.

"Somewhere in life a smart young person needs to learn that the rules apply to him or her, too," he said.

Gibson said the bill would not give students immunity from academic consequences, such as being denied the ability to graduate or participate in extra-curricular activities. He said school and district officials would still have power to enforce attendance, but without the added onus of a potentially criminal citation.

"This bill is not a get out of jail free. You can’t skip school," Gibson said. "If you have a 3.5 GPA or higher, you shouldn’t have to be sent to truancy court."

Jeffrey Christensen, coordinator of policy, student discipline and appeals for Canyons School District, said Utah law defines habitual truancy as a student having more than 10 unexcused absences.

School administrators notify and conference with parents before a student reaches that threshold and apply their professional judgement to individual cases, he said.

"It's a little bit of a balancing act," Christensen said. "Certainly we’re not just in business to try and send students to court."

There are a number of factors that play a role in student truancy, he said, from individual health concerns to a volume of tardy days that translate into unexcused absences. Parents are notified of the state's compulsory education laws as part of a student's registration materials, Christensen said, and school officials and parents do what they can to address issues as they arise.

"We want to work with parents to the extent we can," he said. "We’ll just wait to see what direction the Legislature takes regarding truancy."

When asked how prevalent the issue of high-achieving students receiving truancy citations is, Gibson said he sponsored the bill at the request two of his constituents and has since been contacted by roughly a dozen parents in similar situations.

He said schools have tools at their disposal to incentivize and enforce attendance without resorting to criminal action against students who are demonstrating mastery of their subjects.

"What I’m trying to avoid is the criminal piece," he said.

Rep. David Lifferth, R-Eagle Mountain, was among the committee members who voted in favor of the bill. He said the key concern is whether a student is fulfilling the tasks assigned to them.

"If they’re doing OK, let’s not overly burden them with rules and regulations," Lifferth said.

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