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New Truancy Law: 2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back?

Jailing and fining students or parents for truancy can trap families in a cycle of debt. (pexels.com)
Jailing and fining students or parents for truancy can trap families in a cycle of debt. (pexels.com)
November 8, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania's new truancy law makes some major improvements, but puts poor families at risk of increased penalties that don't solve the problem, according to critics.

The new law puts an emphasis on addressing root causes of truancy in the schools and dealing with cases on an individual basis. But Alex Dutton, a public interest law fellow with the Education Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, said it also continues to threaten parents with jail time and increases potential fines. Approaches that studies show don't work.

"They actually push students and their families further away from school, force them to go underground in certain circumstances, and put them on payment plans that have collateral consequences for other areas of their life," he explained.

The law, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf late last week, increases fines for truancy from a maximum of $300 to $750 for repeat offenses.

On the plus side, Dutton noted that under the new law, schools must make a meaningful attempt to engage the parents before referring the truancy to the courts.

"The schools are required to offer an attendance improvement conference at which the underlying reasons for the child's truancy are considered and a plan is created to address those barriers," he said.

Schools also can no longer suspend, transfer or expel a student for nonattendance.

Dutton added that when truancy cases are referred to court, the new law also gives the magistrate judges who hear those cases much more latitude in the imposition of fines, jail time and other penalties.

"There is a lot more discretion to impose appropriate penalties on students and parents that actually seek to address the underlying root causes of a child's truancy which is a big step forward," he said.

Dutton said fines, jail time and driver's license suspensions, another possible penalty, do not address the issues that cause truancy, but entrap poor people in widening cycles of debt.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA