United States: Truancy Reform Legislation Signed Into Law By Pennsylvania Governor

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf recently signed into law Act No. 138 of 2016. It provides an overhaul of the state's truancy law to improve school attendance and deter truancy.

The revised law contains several key definitions, including the definition of truancy (three or more school days of unexcused absences during the current school year) and habitual truancy (six or more school days of unexcused absences during the current school year).

Another key change to the truancy law is a modification to procedure when a student is truant. Act 138 provides a procedure a school must follow for a student that is truant and it provides a separate process a school must follow for a student that is habitually truant.

If a student is truant, within 10 school days of the student's third unexcused absence, the school must notify a parent or guardian in writing that the student is truant and include a description of the consequences if the student becomes habitually truant. If the student continues to be truant after the written notice is issued, the school must offer in writing a school attendance improvement conference where the student's absences and reasons for absences are examined to improve the student's attendance. If the parent or guardian decides not to participate or fails to attend the conference, the school attendance improvement conference must still occur. A school cannot take further legal action regarding the student's unexcused absences until after the date of the scheduled conference. In addition, the school must document the outcome of the conference in a written school attendance improvement plan. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is required under the revised law to develop a form to document the outcome of the conference and all schools must use a form that is substantially similar to the form developed by the PDE.  

A school cannot expel, impose an out-of-school suspension, disciplinary reassignment or transfer because of a student's truant behavior.

If a student under the age of 15 is habitually truant, the student must be referred to a school-based or community-based attendance improvement program or the county children and youth agency for services or for a possible disposition as a dependent child.  

If a student over the age of 15 is habitually truant, then the school must refer the student to a school-based or community-based attendance improvement program or file a citation with the appropriate judge. If the student continues to incur unexcused absences after being referred to the attendance improvement program or refuses to participate in the program, then the student may be referred to the county child and youth agency for possible disposition as a dependent child.

Regardless of the student's age, if a habitually truant student is referred to the county children and youth agency or a citation is filed with the court, the school must provide verification that a school attendance improvement conference was held.

Act 138 also provides additional excuses from attending school. Under the expanded provision, a student who is dismissed from school by a nurse or school administrator will have his/her absence be deemed excused. In addition, a student will be excused during school hours to obtain professional health care or therapy services.

The revised law also increases the fines a judge may impose for violating compulsory school attendance requirements with fines ranging from $300 for a first offense to up to $750 for a third and subsequent offense. However, if a student attends school in accordance with a plan devised by the judge, the judge can suspend the sentence and can reduce or waive fines and costs.

Act 138 also contains a specific provision relating to charter, regional charter and cyber charter schools. Each charter, regional charter and cyber charter school is required to establish an attendance policy which may be different from the policy of the school district in which the student resides.  The charter school's policy must comply with all provisions of the truancy law. In addition, all charter schools must report unexcused absences directly to PDE through the Pennsylvania Information Management System.

Act 138 applies at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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