October 28, 2016
Truancy is an urgent issue across the Commonwealth because the cost to our children and communities is so high: absence from school results in lower academic achievement, higher drop-out rates, and increased involvement in the juvenile justice system. Truancy also correlates with long-term negative outcomes including drug use, unemployment, victimization, and adult incarceration. The Education Law Center-PA (ELC) has worked on this issue for years and urged lawmakers to adopt data-driven, evidence-based approaches that we know can effectively prevent and reduce truancy, re-engage students and parents, and make our schools a safe and supportive environment for children and their families.
Pennsylvania’s newly enacted truancy legislation, adopted this week, represents a significant overhaul of the state’s truancy laws. To the credit of legislators and advocates, the new law recognizes the core principle that the root causes of truancy must be addressed promptly, on the front lines in schools, and on an individualized basis. In this way, the legislation is a very positive step forward. However, in other ways, the new law departs significantly from evidence-based approaches and may harm vulnerable students and parents.
Lawmakers undertook this legislation in direct response to the 2014 death of Eileen DeNino, a Berks County mother who died while jailed for failing to pay court costs and fines associated with her children’s truancy. Yet, the new law maintains jail time and fines levied at parents that called lawmakers into action in the first place. Instead of reducing fines and eliminating jail time, the new legislation actually increases the fines and maintains jail time requirements, albeit at three days instead of five. Families can now be subject to progressive fines of $500 and $750 per citation for repeat offenses, $350 more than the prior $300 cap.
”This legislation is a far cry from the originally-proposed ‘Eileen’s Law,’ which eliminated any possibility of jail for truancy and kept fines at bay,” said Alex Dutton an Independence Foundation Public Interest Law Fellow at the Education Law Center. “Simply put, despite important reforms that should be celebrated, this legislation fails to address the most inequitable aspects of Pennsylvania’s truancy law, leaving poor families exposed to excessive fines and jail that are proven not to reduce truancy.”
Research studies consistently show that imposing such punishments on parents is completely ineffectual in solving truancy. Data affirms that fines and court costs trap families in court systems and institutions, perpetuating a cycle of poverty that is racially inequitable. Studies in both Texas and California have highlighted that Black and Latino students are disproportionality criminalized and punished for truancy at rates that do not match corresponding disparities in attendance rates. Fines and jail punish families rather than support them to overcome barriers to education. Without a quality education, life outcomes sharply decline. Additionally, fines stick with families for years, driving them deeper into oppressive systems, making it more difficult for students and parents to obtain employment, maintain stable housing, overcome health challenges, and develop and sustain social connections.
“Going forward, local magistrates must apply the new law in light of its stated purpose: eliminating truancy, reducing collateral consequences of convictions on youth, and maintaining stable and healthy families,” said Maura McInerney, Senior Staff Attorney at the Education Law Center. “While the legislation provides magistrates with discretion to impose more fines upon families than ever before, magistrates must exercise this discretion with sensitivity to the real issues that poor families face across Pennsylvania and with an awareness that fines and costs perpetuate racial inequities in our society.”
Those at the forefront of truancy reform and best practices have championed individualized approaches to truancy reduction that address the unique barriers that each student faces to school attendance. Importantly, the new legislation embraces this core principle and requires schools to lead with this approach before resorting to the courts. Under the new law, schools are required to convene individualized student and parent conferences before passing truancy matters to the courts. Schools must also make attempts to meaningfully engage parents in this process by providing official notice in the language preferred by the parent and contacting parents via telephone. Schools who fail to hold conferences and meaningfully engage parents to participate will see their citations thrown out of court.
In addition, schools are no longer permitted to suspend, transfer, or expel students for their non-attendance—“a practice that was all too widespread, yet totally illogical,” said Dutton. Moreover, students who have been deemed truant can now apply to expunge their records immediately upon earning a high school diploma or its equivalent—an essential reform that will sharply limit the collateral consequences that such convictions have on youth as they age into adulthood.
Importantly, the legislation provides local magistrates with significant discretion to impose fair consequences upon students and parents aimed at eliminating the root causes of a student’s truancy. This includes discretion to impose fines, jail, and referrals to the Department of Transportation for automatic driver’s license suspension, a practice which entraps poor people in a cycle of debt. Armed with discretion, it is imperative that local officials apply the law according to its purposes in an effort to avoid the imposition of punitive consequences like fines and jail.
“We look forward to working with partners and stakeholders across the Commonwealth to implement the new law to promote racial justice and access to education for Pennsylvania’s poorest and most vulnerable children and youth,” said Dutton. “Education Law Center will continue to support families facing the most difficult challenges in getting their children to school everyday, and will work closely with local districts and law enforcement to find solutions that will empower parents, students, and communities.”
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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information visit https://elc-pa.org/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.