Richmond Schools Weaken Anti-Truancy Initiative

Attendance officer Breon Eppes. Photo credit: Richmond Free Press

It has long been a pillar of Virginia education policy to increase the high school graduation rate. To advance that goal, several school districts have cracked down on students skipping school. The Richmond Public School system, for instance, has long employed a team of “school attendance officers” to round up truants and get them back into the classroom.

Then last year, in a move that generated little publicity, the General Assembly gutted a 20-year-old anti-truancy law. That bill, according to the Richmond Free-Press, did four things: It (1) doubled from five to 10 the number of days that a student could miss, (2) allowed schools to wait another 10 days before meeting with parents, (3) eliminated most of the authority of school attendance officers to be involved, and (4) allowed school districts to use volunteers instead of paid staff to work on attendance issues.

Now, with support from the Richmond school board, Superintendent Jason Kamras proposes to save $500,000 by eliminating 21 positions slotted for attendance officers and replacing them with seven “attendance liaisons.”

The Richmond Free-Press quoted Bacon’s Rebellion’s friend and comrade-in-arms John Butcher, author of Cranky’s Blog and the first person outside the educational establishment to notice the change:

Update: In an important comment, Dick Hall-Sizemore takes exception to the way the Richmond Free-Press characterized changes to the anti-truancy law, and suggests that the tweaks might have stemmed from issues specific to Fairfax County, and anything happening in Richmond was unintended consequence.

“Students who are not in school can’t be taught,” Mr. Butcher wrote in a trenchant commentary on the change. “Students who are truant frequently drop out. Students who have dropped out cannot lower the pass rates on state Standards of Learning tests.”

However, reports the newspaper, a backlash is building. The article quoted Butler Peterson, an 18-year RPS veteran:

“We conduct home visits in some of the most impoverished and high-crime neighborhoods in the city,” Mr. Peterson said. “We are the boots on the ground. We are a lifeline for these families. We are the heartbeat of RPS.”

He offered examples of the wraparound services and support that attendance officers provide, including ensuring that students in need have clothes to wear and that families are connected with services that the parents never knew existed or didn’t know how to contact.

Mr. Peterson recounted how an attendance team saved one bullied student from hanging herself and how others got three elementary students back to class after they were found panhandling on Midlothian Turnpike at the behest of parents who needed money to support drug habits.

One officer, he said, checks daily to ensure that youths who have cut classes are not playing on railroad tracks on South Side to keep them from getting killed.

“We see it all,” said attendance officer Breon Eppes, including teens who are defying parents and neglected young children whose parents are indifferent to education.

Bacon’s bottom line: Something is going on, although the Richmond Free Press couldn’t figure out what. As reporter Jeremy Lazarus wrote: “It remains unclear” why Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, submitted the legislation to defang the anti-truancy law, or why the Richmond school board issued not a peep of protest. After all, one out of four Richmond students miss 10 or more days of class each year. About one of three students enrolling in the 9th grade fails to graduate four years later.

What was the reason behind dialing back the anti-truancy law? Was the move motivated by a cynical desire to improve average SOL scores by allowing the weakest students drop out? Did someone determine that the program just wasn’t working as intended? Did it occur to someone that kids who didn’t want to be in school tended not to perform well, and, in fact, tended to disrupt the learning of other students? Now that Richmond is reducing its anti-truancy commitment, can we predict that average SOL scores will improve?

I don’t know the answers. But Richmonders should be thankful that bloggers like John Butcher and feisty independent newspapers like the Richmond Free Press are digging into issues that other media are ignoring.

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16 responses to “Richmond Schools Weaken Anti-Truancy Initiative

  1. Isn’t it a little bit ironic that prior complaints have been about “disruptive” students harming the other students trying to learn as well all those increased costs – this saves money!!!

    😉

    For the prior critics to now complain – it comes across a little like damned if you do and damned in you don’t!

    In terms of the law – it took a lot more folks than the bill sponsor to get this through the GA including all those committees and sub-committees who routinely kill bills they don’t like.

    At the end of the day – I wonder what critics like Butcher are really after.

    He’s GOOD at finding and exposing all the dirt – and it is used more often than not to impugn public school and advocate for more non-public schools as a “solution” and I would ask – would you REQUIRE the private schools to take these truancy kids and be responsible for their performance also?

    I would support alternative school models – funded by public dollars – IF we held them to the same standards of transparency and “accountability” that we currently use to impugn the public schools.

    I would not expect any great improvement but I’m more than willing to try alternative approaches but not abandonment.

  2. “Now, with support from the Richmond school board, Superintendent Jason Kamras proposes to save $500,000 by eliminating 21 positions slotted for attendance officers and replace them with seven “attendance liaisons.”’

    This new policy is sheer idiocy. In many cases, Attendance Officers like Breon Eppes are the only responsible adult caretaker these kids have, the only one who is keeping them off the streets. Hence, firing the likes of Breon Eppes or otherwise preventing him from doing his job, is also malpractice bordering on criminal.

    Another sad fact is that most of these kids stop learning in school long before the graduate, so never get a high school education, or nothing close to one. What to do about it? We have to rethink our entire approach to secondary school education for these kids. Any such new approach will require many more people like Breon Eppes.

    Meanwhile, any decent society worthy of its name would replace General Assembly Members who gut such anti-truancy laws, and Superintendents who propose to eliminate Attendance Officers like Breon Eppes.

    This nonsense is another example of earlier comments here, namely:

    Steve Haner | March 18, 2019 at 9:53 am | Reply

    Nobody wants to talk about the real causes of poverty, because too many people have their hands in the pot.

    Reed Fawell 3rd | March 18, 2019 at 10:35 am | Reply

    Yes, Steve, but it is also quite ironic. Hence, one iteration on your comment is that the progressive elites in America will never stop talking about alleged poverty and its ilk because they desperately depend on citizens’ perceptions of poverty, grievance, and social injustice, to keep them, the progressive elites, employed, rich, and in power, with full control.

    So, as a result, this explains most of what is going on in Virginia today, whether it be the Governor of Virginia, the Secretary of Education of Virginia, the Attorney General of Virginia, many county school superintendents in Virginia, many college presidents in Virginia, as well as most of its news and social media, and many delegates to Virginia’s General Assembly, plus now too an ever growing proportion of non-profits working in Virginia.

    All of these progressive elites are playing a growing array of race, social justice and poverty cards while they enrich themselves and drive most everyone else in the state into the poor house, stripping the state of its institutions, legacy and social capital build up over its entire history.

    As you mention, just look at what is happening to so many students in higher education today and their parents, getting screwed four ways to Sunday. Even on the basketball court.

    This is also happening across the nation in many places. It’s why our Federal Government can waste $750 Billion on low income education programs, without any accountability for results whatsoever. And why the State of Virginia engages in the same gross incompetence and waste, in the education of its children too, piling vast wasted sums atop federal dollars.

    See: https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/moral-measures-skin-in-the-game-and-k-12-education/

  3. I have to take issue with some of the Richmond Free Press characterizations of the 2018 legislation (HB 1485):
    (1) doubled from five to 10 the number of days that a student could miss–No, it did not do this. (a) The existing law said that if a pupil missed school for five days without a “parent’s note,” the parents must be contacted by school authorities. The legislation did not change this requirement. (b) The existing law said that if the pupil was absent an additional day after the direct contact with the parents, the school was required to schedule a conference with the parents and pupil. This was changed a little. Instead of saying “absent an additional day”, the language was changed to “absent for more than one additional day”, giving the schools a little flexibility.
    (2) allowed schools to wait another 10 days before meeting with parents–This is misleading. The existing law said that the conference had to be scheduled within 10 days of the sixth absence and actually held no later than 15 days after the sixth absence. The new language eliminated a deadline for scheduling the conference, but required that a conference be held no later than 10 days after the tenth absence. So, under the old law, if a pupil had a sixth unexcused absence, a conference with parents was required within 15 days. Assuming that the pupil did not go back to school during that time, that meant 21 school days. (That’s a lot.) Under the new law, the school is required to schedule a conference sometime after the seventh unexcused absence, no later than 10 days after the tenth absence. So, assuming a pupil does not go back to school after the five absences for which the parents are notified, then a conference must be had no later than 10 days after the tenth absence. That would mean 20 absent school days–virtually the same as the old law, just more flexibility for the school. There were substantive differences between the old law and the new law regarding what occurred after the conference. Previously, the law said that, upon the next unexcused absence after the conference, the school system was to institute court proceedings against the student or parents. The bill changed the law to require the conference team to monitor the pupil’s attendance and plan additional intervention if attendance did not improve. If it were clear that the parents were being intentionally noncompliant with attendance requirements or the pupil was resisting parental efforts to comply, the case would be referred to the attendance officer who would schedule a conference with the pupil and parents within 10 school days (it could be sooner) and then could file legal actions. So, yes, the legislation provided more time for the pupil to come into compliance with the attendance requirements before having to go to court.
    (3) allowed school districts to use volunteers instead of paid staff to work on attendance issues.–The only mention of the use of volunteers in the bill was already in existing law. The bill made no change in the provision.

    As for the role of attendance officers, the legislation did cut the explicit references to the option of attendance officers being involved in making the initial contact with parents after five absences, developing a plan, and scheduling the conference after more than five absences. As for attending the conference itself, the old law did not require that the school attendance officer attend, it only said that “school personnel” would be in attendance. The new language explicitly said that attendance officers could be included.

    Based on all the actual language changes, I would be most reluctant to assign some nefarious intent to the bill. Because all the House sponsors and the sole patron of the Senate counterpart were from Fairfax, I am assuming that this bill was meant to address some issues that had arisen in Fairfax schools. It could have been meant to relieve school attendance officers of some of the administrative burden that they had been saddled with under the old law (notifying parents, scheduling conferences, preparing plans, etc.). The legislation did allow more time for pupils and parents to work out attendance problems before the schools took cases to court. (Perhaps the patrons were being too optimistic and idealistic in this respect.) The Free Press article did not say if it had actually contacted Del. Filler-Corn for an explanation of the reasons for the bill.
    There is nothing in the legislation that would have necessarily led to Kamras’ proposals. I think they are mistaken because a school system like Richmond needs foot soldiers on the front lines who know what is going on in the lives of its students. If this legislation is being used as justification for the proposals, then it is being used as a excuse to hide the real reasons.

  4. Dammit Dick, if you are going to actually read the bills and talk to patrons you will just screw everything up! (Actually, very glad to have somebody else doing that …)

    But I do think the RPS moves seem counter-productive and counter-intuitive, unless getting the kids to drop out and drop off the testing radar is the goal. But keeping them on the rolls is how you keep up the cash flow….I’d seen Butcher’s post earlier and was hoping it would produce a BR story.

  5. Dick is correct that the paper fuzzed the intermediate steps required (or relaxed) by the amended statute. He downplayed the crucial part, however.

    Under the old law, there was to be a parental conference after six absences and a prosecution or CHINS petition after the seventh. Under the amended law, the conference is not invoked until after the tenth absence and the attendance officer then “may” go to court.

    Judging from the FFx comments to the attendance reg a couple of years ago, they HATED the mandatory go-to-court provision. I don’t have data elsewhere (other than Richmond, where their behavior suggests a similar attitude) but I doubt the statute was popular anywhere.

    The basic problem was not “nefarious intent.” It was too many truant students. Rather than deploying the upfront bureaucratic response — prioritize the cases and handle as many as possible — Fairfax has gifted us with a statute that invites them to do nothing but jawbone. Their reward: (1) as Jim points out, troublemakers out of the classroom; (2) as I suggested, dropouts who, by dropping out, raise the SOL pass rates; and, (3) no requirement to expend resources on those troublesome kids.

    For sure, going to court is the nuclear option. It is, however, the only option with any teeth. The old statute required a progressive set of contacts, a plan, and a meeting before it required a trip to the courthouse; the new statute requires an amended progression of jawboning and then leaves the schools free to follow the easier, and — if we don’t look at the interests of the students — probably more rewarding, course of letting truancy fester.

    For your Reading Pleasure, here is the heart of the amended statute:
    The [six absence!] conference shall be held no later than 10 school days after the tenth absence of the pupil, regardless of whether his parent approves of the conference. The conference team shall monitor the pupil’s attendance and may meet again as necessary to address concerns and plan additional interventions if attendance does not improve. In circumstances in which the parent is intentionally noncompliant with compulsory attendance requirements or the pupil is resisting parental efforts to comply with compulsory attendance requirements, the principal or his designee shall make a referral to the attendance officer. The attendance officer shall schedule a conference with the pupil and his parent within 10 school days and may (i) file a complaint with the juvenile and domestic relations district court alleging the pupil is a child in need of supervision as defined in § 16.1-228 or (ii) institute proceedings against the parent pursuant to § 18.2-371 or 22.1-262.

    • You are right in that the meat of the bill was the deletion of the mandatory referral to courts. I did not intend to downplay that aspect of the bill. If I did, it was because I was primarily responding to the criticisms of the legislation raised in the Richmond Free Press article and that was not one of them.

      You make a good case. However, I come at this issue from a different perspective.

      One of my longstanding pet peeves has been the reliance of school authorities on “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies. Under such policies, a girl who brings aspirin or ibuprofen to school to mitigate menstrual cramps, but does not turn the pills in to the school nurse because she wants to have access to the medicine when she needs them, can be suspended for bringing drugs to school. And such inane examples could go on and on. By refusing to rely on common sense or good judgment, school officials are either intellectually lazy or too anxious to engage in CYA in this litigious era, or a little bit of both.

      The mandatory referral to courts is an example of such zero tolerance. It does not allow for consideration of the circumstances in individual cases. The seven unexcused absences could have occurred over a space of six months, for example. The pupil may have been bullied in class or abused at home. The pupil may have had a learning disability and too embarrassed to come to school. There could have been any number of reasons that did not come to light in the first conference. Under the old language, the school officials could have said, “It is not our fault. We are required to refer this case to court.” Now, they cannot hide behind that default position. The nuclear option still is available, but school authorities must look at each pupil’s unique circumstances and make the hard decision whether to refer the case to court.

      You may be right. Rather than making the hard decision, school officials may take the easy way and do nothing and let the problem fester. The potential unintended consequences that you and Jim point out–increased dropouts, disruptive students staying in school, etc–may be the result. It is a tough nut to crack.

      • Zero tolerance policies are a reaction to too-much-tolerance policies. Schools need a judicious balance between the two. Here’s the problem: Public schools cannot obtain that judicious balance. If you allow an administrator to exercise discretion, he or she is opened up to charges of favoritism — or, worse, racism. Public school systems are politicized environments, so there is no escaping it. I don’t know how you escape this dilemma.

      • Dick,

        This is a wonderfully complex subject and I’d love to buy you a beer and argue about it. We could go until the keg was empty and not exhaust the issues.

        For now I’ll just make two more points.

        (1) Of course there will be cases that fall outside the usual, e.g. a student avoiding being bullied. Assuming a parent who was trying and a kid who was indeed being harmed, there of course would be no reason to go to court; indeed, the school’s lawyer would tell them they couldn’t, Va. Code 22.1-258 or no. Write that up and deal with the actual issue; that would leave no room for anybody to complain.

        In Richmond in ’17 (the last year I have data, https://calaf.org/?p=5566), 7,234 kids had 7 or more unexcused absences; RPS went to court on 233 of them. Do you suppose there were 7,001 exceptional cases that year?

        (2) In the usual case, after all the phone calls, the plan, and the conference, there will be parent(s) or a kid or both who just don’t care about the mandatory attendance law. At that point, it’s time for the government to provide some enhanced incentive. For sure, we don’t want the schools exercising more authority, esp. over the parents, so it’s hard to think of a better remedy than Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

        BUT, as we have seen, even when that action is mandatory, our scofflaw schools ignore the requirement. The solution is to deal with those schools, not to license truancy.

    • John –

      Do you think the behavior within your typical public high school classroom is far different from recent Supreme Court nomination hearings in the US Senate or the US House of Representatives? Or the recent Board of Supervisors hearing in Arlington concerning Amazon taking up residence there. I suspect what is going on in all three examples are more closely related than we imagine, that each one is a mirror image of the others.

      One way to gauge the collapse or slow corruption of a culture, subculture or society, is investigate how any such group tries to substitute laws, rules and regulations on its citizens in place of manners, customs, traditions, schemes of decorum, and shame. What surprised me was the dense rules of misbehavior within these schools now are such obvious proof of the dysfunctional culture (milieu) these kids must live in, how their communities must work everyday to strip kids of their future, indeed their humanity. And how helpless, even counter-productive, “the system” is in the face of these problems. And, increasingly, these problems are spreading everywhere.

      The new book Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in an Age of Broken Windows Policing is scary. The problem is rampant now. We’re building walls everywhere.

      • “One way to gauge the collapse or slow corruption of a culture, subculture or society, is investigate how any such group tries to substitute laws, rules and regulations on its citizens in place of manners, customs, traditions, schemes of decorum, and shame. “

        A provocative statement indeed. I totally agree with you. We are moving from the enforcement of social values by means of manners, customs and traditions (all attacked by the Left as oppressive bourgeois or middle-class values) to the enforcement of social values by means of laws, lawsuits, regulations and other forms of government coercion — oh, and the Twitter Outrage Mob.

  6. I live in Fairfax and do not recall anything in the local papers that relates to this. But the FPS bureaucracy seeking those higher SOL scores along with more “relaxed” enforcement sounds about right to me.

  7. “May” and “shall”, the two most important words to hunt for in any GA bill.

  8. Guys, I appreciate this great attention to detail. But are we not losing our perspective here? Is not any school system, and society it serves, that needs such laws and regulations as these to handle the truancy of students, in great trouble? No wonder most kids don’t learn, whether they graduate or not.

    Is this not far more than a dying canary in a coal mine?

    Why would you ever send your own child to such a place, whether it be in Fairfax, or any other place? I would not.

  9. There’s always been an issue of “dropouts” – it’s not really a new issue.

    but again – the schools are being held to a no-win standard by critics.

    On one hand, they’re castigated for “discipline” issues that are tied to lower SOL scores then on the other hand – the same critics are hammering the schools over allowing dropouts so they can boost their aggregate SOL scores.

    So a good question is what exactly are the critics after?

    Oh – there is the idea that if we have more “choice” schools that things would be better, but of course holding them to the same standards as public schools – in terms of having to take everyone and having to be as fully transparent on academic performance metrics is a real downer.

    So.. some of this just comes across as anti-govt and anti-pubic education without any real legitimate alternatives. People actually spend hours and days furthering this “anti” philosophy.

    The simple truth is that things like education, health care, poverty, etc are HARD. There are no silver bullets. It’s a never-ending slog that some folks just can’t accept – for some things.

    So…it goes a little like this: with all these building code “rules” that add to the cost of building along with all these taxes we pay to firefighters – why do we still have fires? So.. the approach is a “failure” – and the solution is to “let the market “work” “.

    yes.. that’s right.. I can do that narrative for any/all of societies ills but I really don’t need to – there’s already folks who do that!

    😉

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