School Code Amendments Create Truancy Reform for Pennsylvania Schools

Attorney Sean A. Fields

By Attorney Sean A. Fields

School Law Snapshot

The Big Picture...

For a number of years, there was a perceived need to reform the provisions of the School Code related to truancy enforcement. In response to that need, Act 138 of 2016 was enacted to address concerns related to reducing excessive school absenteeism.
Some of the significant changes to the School Code that schools will need to be implement for the 2017-2018 school year include the following:

  • The term "truant" is now specifically defined as three (3) or more unexcused absences in the current school year. The definition for "habitually truant" has been clarified to mean six (6) or more unexcused absences during the current school year.
  • Schools must notify parents when a child is truant and hold a School Attendance Improvement Conference if the child continues to accumulate unexcused absences. The outcome of the conference must be documented in a School Attendance Improvement Plan.
  • After a child is habitually truant, schools have options to address the truant behavior that include referring the student to a school-based or community-based program, a referral to a county children, youth and family agency, or prosecution by filing of a citation with a district justice.

The Close Up...
The new truancy law is the culmination of the work of a number of dedicated individuals and groups who viewed reducing excessive school absenteeism as a priority. The groups involved included the Educational Success and Truancy Prevention Workgroup of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts and the legislative advocacy of organizations such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association ("PSBA") and the Juvenile Court Judges Commission ("JCJC").
One of the key reforms in Act 138 relates to parental notice and requirements for a School Attendance Improvement Conference and Plan. The law requires schools to notify the parent or person in parental relation within 10 days of a child's third unexcused absence. At that time, the school may offer the parent a School Attendance Improvement Conference. If the child continues to accumulate unexcused absences after the first notice, the school must hold a School Attendance Improvement Conference unless one was previously held. The purpose of the School Attendance Improvement Conference is to examine the reason(s) for the absenteeism in an effort to improve attendance. Subsequently, the school must document the outcome of the conference in a School Attendance Improvement Plan.
Act 138 also changes the interventions and penalties for truancy. Schools may not expel or impose an out of school suspension, disciplinary reassignment, or transfer a student for truancy. The interventions that a school may use include 1) referring the child to a school-based or community based program 2.) referring the child to a county children, youth, and family agency for services or disposition as a "dependent child" or 3.) filing a citation against the parent. If the child is 15 or older, the school may exercise the same options but may also file a citation against the child if the child continues to incur additional unexcused absences or refuses to participate in a school or community-based program.
Schools are precluded from filing a truancy citation with a district justice if a current proceeding is pending, a referral for service to a children, youth, and family agency has not been closed, or a dependency petition has been filed and the juvenile court retains jurisdiction over the matter. This provision is designed to prevent the filing of multiple citations or "stacking" citations when a student accumulates more unexcused absences after the first citation is filed. The new penalties for truancy include fines not to exceed 1.) $300 plus court costs for the first offense 2.) $500 plus court costs for the second offense and 3.) $750 plus court costs for the third offense. All fines depend on the defendant's ability to pay those fines. Other possible penalties include community service or completion of a course or program designed to improve attendance approved by the president judge of the court. Finally, the court has the authority to suspend the sentence if a child attends school in accordance with the court's plan.
Due to changes in the School Code provisions regarding the enforcement of compulsory school attendance, school entities will need to make policy changes to address enforcement. Additionally, as part of the implementation of new legal requirements schools should consider offering training to administrators and other school staff who are directly involved in enforcing attendance requirements.