More Kentucky families would face court action for truancy under measure advanced in House

Republished from WEKU.

A group of Kentucky House lawmakers advanced a measure that would force more parents and students to stand before a judge in truancy cases.

Absenteeism has been on the rise across the country since the COVID-19 pandemic. Last school year, nearly 30% of students were chronically absent in Kentucky, meaning they missed 10% or more of the school year.

“Our rates of truancy, our rates of chronic absenteeism in the state of Kentucky are quite frankly, embarrassing, abysmal, and we have to do better,” Louisville Republican Rep. Jared Bauman told the House Education Committee Tuesday.

The committee greenlit Bauman’s House Bill 611. Under the measure, if a child in grades K-5 is absent 15 or more days without an excuse, the school district must refer the case directly to the county attorney for “formal court action.”

According to Hardin County Attorney Jennifer Oldham, in truancy cases involving young children, court action is usually a civil case against the parent or guardian.

Under Kentucky law, parents and guardians can also face criminal charges related to truancy and face fines, misdemeanors and jail time.

“There’s all kinds of tools in the toolbox,” Oldham told LPM News. Oldham is the president of the Kentucky County Attorneys Association.

Oldham, who supports the intent of the measure, said the bill’s language may need to be adjusted.

It is unclear from the bill language whether both civil and criminal proceedings are on the table after 15 unexcused absences. It’s also unclear whether districts would be forced to refer families to court after 15 unexcused absences, even if school staff are still actively working with families to resolve barriers to attendance, such as transportation, bullying or health issues.

“I just think there may be some semantics that may need to be improved,” Oldham said.

HB 611 would also allow for tougher sanctions on truant children.

Children in grades five and under are generally not deemed by judges competent to stand trial for truancy in Kentucky, according to attorneys LPM spoke with. But kids can be held responsible once they’re middle school and high school. That’s when they’re considered old enough to stand before a judge and face consequences, including juvenile detention.

Current law requires the courts to send habitually truant students through a diversion program prior to appearing before a judge. That diversion could include counseling, meetings with family members and court workers, an improvement plan or mandated therapy.

But supporters of HB 611 say those diversion programs take too long and aren’t always effective in getting a student back in school quickly.

“The process sometimes can take months before any action is taken,” Bauman said.

HB 611 would allow for habitually truant students to be sent directly to court. It would also require students who are in diversion programs to go before a judge if they miss another two days of school.

McKee Republican Rep. Timmy Truett, who co-sponsored the bill, said it would “give some teeth” to truancy laws. Truett, an elementary school principal, said families may be more likely to change their behavior if they’re taken to court.

“It’s called ‘the robe effect,’” Truett said, referring to the judge’s robe. “The quicker we can have students and parents experience that robe effect — that’s when things get done.”

Oldham agreed. She said judges can order children into therapy or drug treatment, and even threaten detention, which she called “the ultimate tool the court has.”

“Is that our goal? Absolutely not. But the possibility of jail can be a very motivating factor,” she told LPM.

The measure passed out of committee with support from both parties. A few members of the committee raised concerns, even as they voted in favor of sending it to the House floor.

Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski of Louisville said she was told that if passed, HB 611 would flood the courts with 10,000 cases in Jefferson County alone. Republican Rep. Killian Timoney of Lexington said he worried about a backlog.

“If … you were number 9,999 in that list, and you’re truant, when are you going to get before a judge? And how many days you’re going to miss until then?” Timoney said.

Democratic Rep. Josie Raymond noted that in her Louisville district many students may be absent due to disruptions in bus service.

“And I’m worried that that’ll create an uptick in truancy in the short term. How can we support families who are facing barriers?” she asked.

Truett said schools have teams in place to help with attendance, and that his goal with HB 611 is to “catch the bad actors.”

Some lawmakers noted that increasing attendance would also help districts financially, since the state funding formula is based on average daily attendance.

“If 10 families in a district decide they don’t want their kid to show up to school — that’s a teacher, that’s $42,000 right there that comes out of the school’s budget,” Erlanger Republican Rep. Steven Doan said.

Spokespeople for Jefferson County Public Schools and the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the measure.

Originally published by WEKU.

Republished with permission.