SHERIDAN — The Joint Education Committee advanced a bill that gives school districts increased power to determine disciplinary policy for absences and increasing penalties for absenteeism and truancy.

The bill grants school districts the power to define an “unexcused absence” and determine the number of unexcused absences that constitute “habitual truancy” and “willful absenteeism.”

The bill defines “habitual truant” as “any child who, disobeying reasonable and lawful demands of the child’s parent, guardian, custodian or other proper authority, obtains more than the limit of unexcused absences as defined in the policies of the local board of trustees” in any one school year.

The bill defines “willful absenteeism” as exceeding the number of unexcused absences permitted by the school board when the excess absences are the result of a parent’s, guardian’s or custodian’s willful failure, neglect or refusal to require a child’s regular attendance at school.”

Sheridan County School District 3 Superintendent Charles Auzqui said he thought the increased discretion for school districts would be an advantage for smaller schools in particular, especially for districts like SCSD3 that have alternative calendars with fewer instructional days.

Auzqui said the district has not had a reported truancy in the 16 years that he has been with the school district and said extended absences are typically due to medical reasons.

The bill also increases the penalties to parents and guardians who neglect or refuse to comply with the law from a $5-$25 fine range to a $50-$150 fine range. It also stipulates that such parents will be guilty of a misdemeanor but removes the possibility of serving up to 10 days in jail for the offense. Additionally, it lays out the duty of attendance officers to counsel with students, parents, teachers and administrators to determine the causes of unexcused absences and provide written notice to parents. If continued absences are found to be due to willful neglect by a parent or guardian, the attendance officer is required to proceed toward punishment, with the attendance officer or the board of trustees notifying the district attorney.

Auzqui said a concern moving forward is whether the court systems, Department of Family Services and other government entities will be able to support districts with varying policies as they seek to enforce them.

Joint Education Committee co-chair Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell said the Joint Education Committee discussion of the bill was unnecessarily contentious. Northrup also noted that the largest problem with absenteeism in the state has been on the Wind River Reservation.

A staff note in the bill states that the Select Committee on Tribal Relations accepted the language of the bill but maintained there are constitutional arguments that the legislature should better specify the standard so that people can better understand when they may be subject to penalties.

Sheridan County School District 1 Superintendent Peter Kilbride said the district has not had a problem with continued absences and said smaller districts have a bit of an advantage in dealing with absences.

“We tend to know our parents pretty well and can reach out personally to them when we do have an issue,” Kilbride said.

Kilbride said in the past, district staff have personally gone to students’ homes to learn about what may be preventing them from attending school.

“I think that outreach has helped us, when they know we care enough to actually go to their door and not accuse them of anything other than to say, ‘Hey, is there an issue getting to school?’ and if there is to say, ‘Hey, is there something we can do to help?’”

If passed, the law will take effect July 1, 2020, and school districts will be required to have policies in place by that date.

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