Bill tackles a stubborn problem in trying to curb truancy

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By Sherry Robinson

Legislators are trying to get their arms around truancy in the state. Discussion about the most promising bill, the bipartisan HB 437, illustrates just how complicated the problem is.
We have 54,000 kids who are habitually truant, which means they have 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year. That should take your breath away.
Studies and common sense tell us that these kids are most likely to drop out.
Four lawmakers whose political coloration ranges from conservative to liberal have teamed up to carry the bill: Reps. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque; Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, James Townsend, R-Artesia, and Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. On Saturday, the most conservative, Townsend, and most liberal, Ruilobo, sat together to sell their bill to the House Education Committee.
HB 437 calls for earlier and more intensive interventions. It requires schools to have a family resources program, work with agencies and community organizations, and notify parents. It would suspend drivers licenses.
Legislators used as models successful programs in Carlsbad and Albuquerque’s Atrisco Heritage High School.
In Carlsbad, at the third unexcused absence, a Community Truancy Action Committee swings into action to address underlying causes. It includes the state Children, Youth and Families Department, juvenile probation, police, anti-drug and alcohol groups, United Way, and local charities. A fifth absence means Truancy Intervention Court, where the organizations help students and their families stay on track.
The drivers license piece ran into the same objections here that it has before: Some students hold jobs to help out their families. They need to drive. But those jobs may be the source of the absences. On the other hand, the license can be a powerful motivator, which is why 27 states tie attendance and performance with driving privileges.
Committee members liked the bill but had a few reservations.
One teacher recalled that a student was always late to his first period class and took off before the last class ended. His janitorial job was the reason. A school official spoke to the student and the employer and got some adjustments in his schedule.
Another teacher complained that some parents think they can bring their kids to school whenever they want.
We tend to think of teenagers as truant, but the Public Education Department says that in the 2014-2015 school year, the truancy rate was 11.9 percent for elementary students, 10.3 percent for middle school, and 19.9 percent for high school. That’s 14.29 percent overall. In fiscal 2016 it rose to 16.3 percent.
Several committee members thought the bill was more punitive than necessary.
Townsend explained that the bill isn’t intended to be punitive but to direct help to students and families.
Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, objected that her parents caught and punished her for skipping school. That’s the role of parents, she said. Townsend pointed out that not all parents are as vigilant as hers. He’s right about that. For a variety of reasons, a lot of kids have to get themselves to school.
Other committee members worried about the expense to schools and thought the bill was overly prescriptive.
Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, is the superintendent of a 200-student district. When kids cut class, they often fetch up at the Subway. The restaurant then calls Roch to find out if it’s OK. Because small districts don’t have the truancy problems of bigger districts, he asked for some flexibility in the bill’s language.
The bill has support from schools and their administrators. A few modifications should take it to the finish line. Kudos to its sponsors for tackling a knotty problem.