Highland High School Principal Karen Gauen said she would not recommend any changes to the district’s current attendance policy at this time.
Last month, Mary Mueller asked the school board to look into the district’s current truancy policy. The Highland parent said the district is misusing the word “truancy” in their policy.
Gauen said it will be ultimately up to the School Board to decide to change the policy.
According to the current policy, Highland school administrators start to mail a letter to parents if their child misses 5 percent or more of the 180 student’s attendance days.
“I know they will want us to follow the state guidelines,” Gauen said. “And the state guidelines say we need to get students in school. But when a student is not in school, it’s our responsibility to communicate that news with the child’s parents.”
Gauen said the letters are not intended to “offend” or “embarrass” the parents, but school officials believe they have to take some sort of action to get a child into school.
“Our current attendance policy mirrors other schools in the Mississippi Valley Conference,” she added.
Other MVC schools Waterloo, Triad, Civic Memorial, Jerseyville and Mascoutah. Of those schools, only Mascoutah enforces a stronger attendance policy that goes above the state recommendations, according to Gauen.
Superintendent Mike Sutton said the district’s attorney is still reviewing the policy.
Possible change to the law
Illinois parents of truant students can be fined up to $500 and jailed up to 30 days. However, a bill currently being considered in the General Assembly would increase the maximum penalties to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for parents whose children are in special education. The maximum penalty would be unchanged for parents of students in regular classes.
Opponents of the bill say it makes no sense to single out the parents of students in special education. Supporters of the bill say attendance is especially important for students in special education. One parent says the bill is an attempt by schools to retaliate against frustrated parents who are pulling their special-needs children out of public schools.
The bill, House Bill 3402, is sponsored by Rep. Silvana Tabares, a Chicago Democrat.
Under the bill, permitting truancy would become a class B misdemeanor in cases where the student is in special education. Under existing law, the charge is a less-serious class C misdemeanor for all parents.
The legislation’s supporters include regional superintendents of schools, who assist school districts in enforcing truancy laws, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, a teacher union.
Bob Daiber, the regional superintendent for Madison County, said regional superintendents support this bill, because “often the special-needs students are the most vulnerable, and they live in situations sometimes where education opportunities are most important to them because of their situation.”
Daiber, who is a former president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools and teacher in Triad Unit 2, said some parents of special-needs students might feel that school is of little benefit to their children. For those parents, attendance might not be a priority, he said.
“But there is much that these children can gain through education,” Daiber said. “It’s very important for them to attend school and become functional members of society.”
Melissa Taylor, who coordinates special education for Belleville School District 201, fears the legislation could backfire — resulting in parents taking their special-needs students completely out of school.
“The last thing we would want to see is a parent feeling they would want to take a child out of school because of this,” Taylor said. “We just worry about those unintended consequences.”
Taylor is also president of the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education, which opposes the bill.
“We think that truancy is harmful, we want our kids to be in school, and we appreciate the sentiment, but as a general rule we are uncomfortable with things that separate out our students with disabilities,” Taylor said. “We feel like truancy is bad for all kids, and we don’t necessarily see the good that would come from singling out any specific group of students.”
Taylor said that, in her experience, truancy is not more of a problem among students in special education than it is among students in the general population.
“I’m confused by it,” Taylor said of the legislation. “I’m confused why they would want to single out a group.”
The Belleville News Democrat contributed to this story.