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Council Committee Approves Amended Truancy Bill

4/3/2013, 9:55 a.m.

After years of ineffective initiatives and task forces, coupled with a lack of concern from parents, school and city officials, the District of Columbia is finally getting serious about truancy.

It begins with D.C. Council member David Catania's (D-At-Large) "Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013," which included a provision for the parents and guardians of chronically-absent students to be put in jail. But the bill was amended in a 5-0 vote on March 27 by the council's newly- resurrected Education Committee to exclude the requirement of jail time.

"I'm pleased that this legislation is moving forward and that this government will finally get serious about the rampant truancy among District students," said Catania, 45, who chairs the Committee. "The Committee has been willing to listen to the community and stakeholders, and I believe that we have crafted legislation that will work."

Dating back to the administration of former Mayor Anthony Williams, truancy has been cited as one of the main reasons for low test scores and low graduation rates in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system.

And, with about 2,000 students marked truant each day, the District's rate of chronic absenteeism has the distinction of being one of the worst in the nation.

Among major points outlined in Catania's amended legislation is inclusion of "The Straight A Act" - which expands efforts to put into place, an effective and comprehensive response to truancy in the District. That action will be supported by last year's "South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act of 2011" which will be the basis for delivery of related school-based interventions and services. The Memorial Act, which was crafted by Catania in 2010 following a drive-by shooting in Southeast in which four teenagers died, calls for an expansion of mental health services to students, and increased behavioral health screening at District agencies that deal with youth.

The bill also mandates that schools notify the police, Office of the Attorney General (OAG) and Court Social Services when students between the ages of 14 and 17 accumulate their 15th unexcused absence. In addition, with the exception of extreme cases, the bill offers recommendations for schools to reduce or eliminate the use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

In his original bill which was introduced in January, Catania sought the prosecution of parents after their children missed 20 days of unexcused absences from school.

However, during a Feb. 23 meeting at Anne Beers Elementary School in Southeast, Catania was reminded that a similar law had already been enacted in the District, but was rarely enforced by the District's attorney general, Nathan Irvin. That mandate imposes a $100 fine or up to five days in jail for parents, if a student misses more than two days of school.

To that end, the watered-down version of Catania's legislation leaves the current mandate intact, but doesn't require prosecution after students accumulate two unexcused absences in one month.

"Taking children away from their homes or putting parents of truant children in jail should be, as they are now, rare and extreme measures of keeping children in the classroom," Irvin said in a February interview.