In each case of these two cases, the child is suffering from chronic health issues that have been well-documented by physicians.
In each case, school officials challenged the child’s physicians’ excuse for missing school.
In each case, the question of whether the child is eligible for services through special education or should be served under a Section 504 plan has been raised.
In each case, the parents have been forced to retain an attorney to navigate the complicated system in which they now find themselves entangled.
More details will be revealed as these cases progress. But because these cases are so similar in nature, and are so problematic and disruptive for these two families, it is necessary to lay the path that should be taken to keep from reaching this point.
If you or anyone you know has a child attending public school battling with chronic health issues, keep reading. You will learn the basic rules, and how to (hopefully) stay out of jail.
Alabama’s Attendance Requirements
To begin with, each school district is required to employ a certified Attendance Officer to keep track of which children are and aren’t attending school within that district. The Attendance Officer should be able to guide you to all of your district’s policies related to attendance.
Nearly a decade ago, the Alabama State Board of Education adopted a resolution defining truancy. The resolution outlined a minimum set of parameters for labeling a child as “truant”.
The ALSDE’s Attendance Manual details all laws and requirements about attendance. Dry as it is, it’s worth a read.
The Manual also delineates how students can be exempted from attending school.
Curiously, though, one very important statutory exemption is missing from the Attendance Manual: the law provides an exemption for students who are physically or mentally incapacitated. The superintendent of the school district can issue a certificate of exemption.
Although the ALSDE has laid out the minimum attendance parameters, local school districts have been given permission to “adopt a policy more rigorous than the State policy”. (AAC 290-3-1-.02-(7)(c)5)
As a result, each district has crafted their own attendance policy, laying out the rules for parents concerning tardies and absences, including when various levels of intervention kick in. Those levels may include meeting with school district officials and attending an Early Warning Court in the county court system.
The final level of intervention for school officials is filing a petition with the juvenile court charging parents with educational neglect, a.k.a. contributing to the delinquency of a minor and/or filing a truancy petition against a child over the age of 12. Experts agree that filing a court petition should be an instrument of last resort, after all alternative paths for intervention have been exhausted. The penalty imposed by a court can include a fine and/or jail time for the parent. Parents can be charged with court costs as well.
Excused and Unexcused Absences
So what makes an absence excused or unexcused?
Section 16-28-13 of the Code of Alabama states “a good cause or valid excuse, as used in this section, exists when on account of sickness or other condition attendance was impossible or entirely inadvisable or impracticable or when, by virtue of the extraordinary circumstances, the absence is generally recognized as excusable.”
The Alabama State Department of Education’s (ALSDE) Attendance Manual delineates a list of reasons for which absences can be excused:
- Death in immediate family.
- Inclement weather which would be dangerous to the life and health of the child as determined by the principal.
- Legal quarantine.
- Emergency conditions as determined by the principal.
- Prior permission of the principal upon request of the parent or legal guardian. (pp.45-46 of the linked PDF)
[Excessive absences, even they are excused, can still amount to chronic absenteeism, which is a problem in and of itself, but that topic is reserved for another day.]
Anything not on the list is considered unexcused.
Unexcused absences are the ones that are used to label a child as “truant”. When those unexcused absences reach a certain number, which differs by school district, the Superintendent and/or the Attendance Officer are authorized to file a petition in juvenile court.
And while there likely are parents who don’t take their responsibility seriously of getting their children to school, other parents are struggling with their child’s chronic health condition and should be receiving help from school officials instead of being sent to jail.
What School Officials Should Do
If a child is absent, school officials follow various procedures to determine whether the child’s absence is excused or unexcused. That procedure may even vary by the age of the child.
School officials likely have set various triggers or “red flags” to take note if a child is excessively tardy or absent. “Excessively” can be different for each district, though.
The district’s attendance policy (find it!) will outline the various levels of intervention as tardies and absences increase.
Somewhere along the way, in addition to following the various steps along the path toward declaring a child truant, school officials should stop to consider whether the child’s tardies or absences may indicate something more than perceived neglect or habitual truancy.
Some districts employ social workers to help determine the cause of continued tardies or absences.
School attorneys are increasingly suggesting that school officials implement “Child Find” evaluations when students are continually late or absent from school.
“Child Find” is the federal mandate for school districts to proactively seek out and identify children who may be eligible for services under IDEA or Section 504.
These presentations (this one and this one), both created by law firms for school officials, clearly delineate reasons why school officials should initiate Child Find procedures for students who have excessive absences. Both presentations cite multiple court cases where districts were found to have violated Child Find obligations by not considering that excessive absences could indicate a health issue serviceable under IDEA or Section 504.
What You Should Do to Avoid a Legal Nightmare
How do you keep from getting caught in the legal nightmare that is underway in each of these cases?
If your child has a chronic health problem that causes continual tardies or absences, you must work with your child’s medical team to make certain you have proper medical documentation.
Keep written notes all along the way. Communicate in writing with school officials.
If you find school officials to be uncooperative, written communication will go a long way to protect your child should it escalate to a court intervention.
Find the attendance policy! You must know how many tardies and/or absences triggers the first intervention in your school district.
You must understand clearly what to expect along the way if your child’s health problems continue to cause tardies and absences.
You should ask school officials if your child needs a Section 504 Plan. A 504 plan is simply a plan to accommodate your child’s health issues, making certain your child has access to the same educational program offered to other children who aren’t struggling with health issues. The 504 is a relatively simple evaluation and school officials shouldn’t hesitate to cooperate with your request.
If your child is going to be hospitalized or is unable to attend school for an extended period of time, you need to ask school officials if your child qualifies for Homebound Services. You may have to push a bit, as Homebound Services can be costly for school districts, and they may resist your initial request (even though they shouldn’t).
If your child is struggling with physical and/or emotional difficulties related to attending school, or if you don’t fully understand the health condition your child is battling, you should ask school officials to evaluate your child for special education services. The evaluation could provide valuable information to better understand why attending school is difficult.
The more you communicate with school officials about your child’s struggles, the more likely it is you will be able to get the help your child needs and avoid the legal nightmare of the world of truancy.
You must document all of your requests in writing.
The Alabama Parent Education Center (ADAP) has staff available to help guide you through this maze if you need help. The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP) also has staff available to determine whether your child should be served under a 504 plan or in special education.
And if all else fails, you may need to hire an attorney. The good folks at APEC and ADAP should be able to help you should you need to take that step.
While I would hope that school officials would offer help freely, that just isn’t always the case. If your child’s chronic health problems are causing excessive tardies or absences, you must take the proper action regardless of what school officials offer in order to protect your child and yourself.
Stay tuned for more on how these two cases work their way through the legal system.
Additional Resources for Parents of School-Aged Children with Chronic Health Problems
Chronic Conditions and School – American Academy of Pediatrics
Managing Chronic Health Conditions at School – St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children
A Parent’s Guide to Section 504 in Public Schools – GreatSchools.org