State Senate should adopt hopeful tonic for truancy

From the Department of Cures Worse than Their Diseases comes this doozy wrapped in a longstanding tradition from the hallowed halls of public education in Ohio.

For years and years now, students who chronically skip school without a legitimate excuse typically receive the most unfitting punishment of additional days off from the classroom, a penalty that unintentionally but tacitly signals approval or acquiescence to their offense.

Republican state Rep. Bill Hayes likens that policy to punishing kids for not eating broccoli by taking away all the broccoli. Hayes of Granville made that apt analogy in his co-sponsorship of House Bill 410, which aims to dramatically change how Ohio schools and courts deal with students who are chronically AWOL.

It’s hard to disagree with Hayes’ proposed reforms to reinvent responses to truancy. That’s likely why the bill zipped through the Ohio House of Representatives last spring with a 92-1 vote of support. It’s now incumbent upon the state Senate to seal the deal by adopting the measure during its lame-duck session in Columbus next week.

The legislation requires wholesale reforms to Ohio’s laws governing truancy in public schools and local courts. It’s designed to give schools better options and to ensure students get the help they need to stay in school and off the streets. It starts by deep-sixing the traditional lazy and counterproductive punishment of giving days off from school for the crime of taking days off from school.

As Mahoning County Juvenile Court Judge Teresa Dellick, a supporter of House Bill 410, questions: “Why would we punish kids by taking away their civil right to an education? How are we helping our students in the long run?”

The short answer is not at all. Not only are students deprived of their constitutional rights, the out-of-school suspension does nothing to get at the root causes of chronic absenteeism, which can range from poor self-esteem, child abuse, drug addiction, rampant bullying or other serious psycho-social issues far too many teenagers endure.

Rewarding absenteeism

To their credit, some school districts have begun to aggressively tackle the foolishness of rewarding excessively absentee students with a 10-day pass from class. Youngstown City Schools, for example, have decreased the use of out-of-school suspensions by about 50 percent over the past two years. Nonetheless, the district still uses the tactic three times more often than the average public school district in the state, according to data last year from the Ohio Department of Education.

A program funded by a $600,000 federal grant will partner the court system and the Valley’s largest school systems to identify truancy, academic performance and behavioral issues before the problem escalates.

That program, coupled with the provisions of HB 410, could vastly reduce the number of truants who must appear before judges and magistrates to answer to their offenses, thereby slowing down the school-to-prison pipeline that runs particularly strong through urban school districts.

Of course, addressing truancy and its related ills will not totally eliminate all out-of-school suspensions. And for the worst of the worst discipline problems, at times severe punitive action may be necessary for students and complicit parents or guardians.

As Campbell City Prosecutor Brian Macala said in a front-page enterprise story on the problem in Monday’s Vindicator, “Sometimes we’ve had to take action through juvenile court on those [truant] students. Sometimes having that hammer – to say this is the consequence if you don’t do ‘A’ – I think is valuable.”

But by and large, court intervention in Campbell and elsewhere is unnecessary. House Bill 410 recognizes as much and offers a large cast of beneficiaries.

Students would benefit by regaining an education they otherwise would forfeit. Educators would benefit by not having to waste valuable class time playing catch-up or dealing with behavioral problems. Districts would benefit through the likelihood of higher rankings on school report cards. And taxpayers would benefit by no longer forking out per-pupil funding for phantom pupils.

In sum, the legislation offers a much more realistic and promising cure for student truancy than Ohio’s decades-old ineffective therapy of tossing students out of class.

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