Task force seeks to reduce school absences

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During the November meeting of the Educational Prosperity Initiative, Regina Abbott discussed her work on the Attendance Task Force, a group that oversees student absenteeism in the local school system.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, an unexcused absence is any absence that does not fall in one of the following categories — personal illness, serious illness or death in the student’s immediate family, religious holiday, serving as Page of the General Assembly, registering to vote or voting (not to exceed one day), when conditions render attendance impossible or hazardous to the student’s health or safety, or when mandated by order of governmental agencies.

In all other cases, “any absences, which are not permitted under the Compulsory School Attendance Law and by policies and regulations of the school system Board of Education will be considered unlawful (unexcused).”

Georgia state law says that after five unexcused absences, parents or guardians will be given written documentation telling them of the possible consequences of failing to comply with the law, and after seven unexcused absences, a referral will be made to a social worker.

It is when a student has 10 unexcused absences that a referral to the Attendance Task Force is made.

Abbott, who has been on the task force for just over one year, said that usually by the time a student gets to them they have had 30 or more unexcused absences. She said it has been as high as 60.

According to her presentation, unexcused absences can lead to missed learning and the risk of falling behind. She said it can also cause students to disengage socially and lead to feelings of alienation.

In the longterm, she said the consequences of missing school can cause adverse health outcomes, lead to poverty in adulthood and/or increase the likelihood of interacting with the criminal justice system.

She said when a student is referred to the Attendance Task Force, the parent or guardian is called to meet with them. She said if the student is old enough, (middle or high school age) they are also called to meet with the task force.

During the meeting, a social worker reviews the case with the parent or guardian and then the members of the task force ask questions.

“We try to hear them out and engage in conversation with them, to ask questions and find out what it is they need to be able to be in school,” she said.

After the discussion, the parent or guardian leaves the room and the task force creates a list of recommendations. Next, the parent or guardian returns and they are presented with the recommendations.

She said there are a number of resources they use to help reduce the number of absences. Some of these include mental health treatment, skills training and counseling.

“Rather than just punishing, finding actionable solutions is often effective in reducing truancy,” a portion of her presentation read.

She said that there are several ways the community can participate in reducing unexcused absences in the local system. She said that anyone who wishes to help can volunteer as a mentor, become a court-appointed special advocate, become certified in Youth Mental Health First Aid and more.

“Parents, schools, youth all have a responsibility in preventing truancy,” Abbott said.

Jennifer Reynolds staff writer @ Griffin Daily News.