Truancy reform legislation supported by PSBA under House Bill 1907 (Rep. Benninghoff, R-Centre) was passed by the General Assembly this week and is headed to Gov. Wolf's desk. The final bill is a combination of the hard work of both the House and the Senate as very similar legislation was also considered under Senate Bill 359 (Sen. Greenleaf, R- Montgomery).
The legislation provides significant improvements to the truancy system in Pennsylvania, and reflects various recommendations of the Educational Success and Truancy Prevention Workgroup. The group, convened by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, consists of PSBA, judges, magisterial district justices, probation officers, educational organizations, and children and youth services professionals. The Workgroup has been championing this issue since 2009, first drafting legislative language in 2011 that could be used to amend the School Code to more effectively combat truancy by reducing excessive absenteeism. These recommendations, which clarified and updated definitions and the process for addressing unexcused absences, are included in this bill. More importantly, the bill makes changes to the penalty provisions in a manner that promotes a proactive approach to truancy and greater flexibility in the imposition of intervention and penalties for truancy. Passage of House Bill 1907 is a major accomplishment for PSBA and the Workgroup.
Among other changes House Bill 1907 will modernize the definitions of Section 1326 of the School Code by:
Clarifying that a student is "habitually truant" when the student has six or more unexcused absences within a school year;
Providing specific definitions for "school year" and "school day"; and
Adding a definition for a "School attendance improvement conference" to encourage school districts to take a proactive approach to unexcused absences by offering the student and their parents/guardians an opportunity to address the underlying cause(s) of the student's absences.
House Bill 1907 also makes changes to the intervention and penalty provisions by:
Requiring that schools offer and hold a school attendance improvement conference before a truancy citation is filed in order to: examine the reasons for the child's absences and develop a written school attendance improvement plan. In addition to the appropriate school officials, both the child and the person in parental relation shall be invited to the conference.
Providing schools with the discretion to refer children to a school or community based program, make a referral to children and youth services, or file citation against a parent or child depending on the age of the child.
Enabling the courts to exercise the discretion to suspend sentences for truancy convictions and waive fines if the child is attending school in compliance with the court's plan.
Precluding additional citations for truancy violations from being filed while a truancy proceeding is already pending.
Organizing and clarifying the penalties for violating the compulsory attendance law. Clarifies that either fines, community service, attendance at a course or program designed to improve school attendance shall be the first penalty imposed for a violation of the compulsory attendance law.
Permitting a child who has a summary offense conviction for violations of the compulsory school attendance requirements to have the record expunged if specified requirements are met.
Loss of driving privileges has always been an option for a child who fails to comply with a lawful sentence for a judge to use in an attempt to enforce compliance with the compulsory attendance law. House Bill 1907 clarifies the law and ensures the restoration of driving privileges under certain circumstances and permits a child to receive an occupational limited license.
In addition, the bill also adds provisions addressing students with chronic health conditions who are dismissed during school hours for health-related reasons. The bill also requires charter and cyber charter schools to: develop attendance policies that address unexcused absences; report unexcused absences directly to the PA Department of Education annually; take steps to address unexcused absences; and, file citations for truancy directly with the appropriate court.