As the concept of chronic absenteeism gains traction across the country, some people are under the impression that it’s just a politically correct way of saying truancy. However, the two terms describe different aspects of our absenteeism problem and require different approaches to bringing students back to school every day.

First, let’s take truancy, a term that generally refers to unexcused absences. In the past, federal law required states to track truancy but left it to states to come up with the definition.

With its focus on unexcused absences, truancy naturally leads to a focus on compliance with the rules. Students are missing school without an excuse, skipping school and violating mandatory attendance requirements. Fixing the problem becomes a question of ensuring compliance, often left to front-office administrators, and in the most severe cases, to the legal system. Policymakers often recommend punitive consequences for truancy – such as suspensions, jail time and fines – for children and parents. Some communities and courts have devised effective approaches to reducing truancy, but in other places, punitive efforts are pushing students out of school.

Chronic absenteeism, on the other hand, incorporates all absences: excused, unexcused and suspensions. The focus is on the academic consequences of this lost instructional time and on preventing absences before students miss so much school that they fall behind. It recognizes that students miss school for many understandable issues such as asthma or homelessness or unreliable transportation, for which a punitive response is not appropriate.

Like truancy, chronic absence has no common definition, though many researchers and schools monitor how many students are missing 10 percent or more of the school year. That’s about two days a month, or 18 days in most school districts.

Absenteeism and Special Education

School districts are constantly faced with dealing with students who are chronically absent from school, drop out at the age of sixteen (16) or receive failing grades due to absenteeism. Among the factors that can underlie as the cause of either school refusal, chronic absenteeism, or truancy are: anxiety or panic attacks, depression, drug/alcohol use, failing grades, fatigue, physical aggression or threats, maladaptive social behavior, etc., all of which can be categorized as  family, school and psychological factors, and chronic health conditions.

So, what happens when that student is a special education student? Does the School District have a different obligation to a special education student who is absent from school?

Section 504 and the Child Find both require school districts to identify, locate, and evaluate all children residing that either they have, or are suspecting of having, disabilities and need special education as a result of those disabilities. The school should find out why the student is absent, because if it is suspected that the absenteeism could be related to a disability, the school may need to evaluate the student for special education. If the student’s absenteeism relates to the student disability, the school has an obligation to convene an ARD/IEP meeting and develop an IEP that addresses the issue.

At the same time, the school must determine if the nonattendance is related to the district failure to provide appropriate programs and services in the appropriate placement. Some parents might request for residential placement due to alleged school phobia, depression, or extremely low self-esteem.

Since absenteeism can interfere with the Child Find provision and the delivery of FAPE, failure to take action with respect to absenteeism can place a district at risk of legal action.

Attendance Policies and Suspensions

Depending on the state’s attendance policy, a special education student excluded from class as a result of such a policy could create an issue; this this action can constitute a change in placement or discipline. In such case, the problem would need to be addressed through an FBA, the students’ BIP or a manifestation determination meeting.

In some cases, the fact that a student may require a specialized program that looks different from the traditional program does not equate to special education eligibility. In this situation, the school should investigate alternatives to traditional school attendance if the desired result is to legitimately transform a school climate that includes truancy and absenteeism.

As a last resource, if a school has provided FAPE, they have the option to file truancy charges to address excessive absenteeism.

For specific information about TEA Requirements for Truancy Prevention, please read the following document presented by Region 13: