FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
September 6, 2012
Contact: Heather F. Williamson
Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office
20 East Market Street
Leesburg, VA 20176-2809
OP-ED: TARDY PROSECUTIONS WERE EXTREME CASES
JIM PLOWMAN, COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY
Much has been made in the media over the past several months regarding student attendance and a few of the cases that have made their way into the court system. What has not been outlined in great detail are the extreme nature of these cases, and the efforts that Loudoun County Public Schools undertook prior to initiating court action. With the school year beginning, I thought it might be beneficial to explain the process.
In an effort to improve student attendance rates, LCPS has implemented a strategy based on prevention and intervention to determine, on an individual basis, how the school can assist both parents and students. LCPS considers excessive absenteeism or excessive tardiness to be at a rate of at least 10 percent to 15 percent. In Loudoun County, that level is reached in more than 1,000 cases per school year. Once reached, the principal of the school reaches out to the parents and to age-appropriate children to advise them of the total number of absences and/or tardiness and then offers assistance in preventing further instances.
In a majority of those cases, the initial outreach letter brings the attendance up to acceptable levels and no further action is required. In those cases where it does not, the principal will send a second letter to request a meeting and will maintain continual open communication to work toward a solution. If these efforts do not result in improved and consistent attendance, the case is referred to an attendance officer who again reaches out to the family to ascertain what can be done to improve attendance. These efforts have included such things as: buying alarm clocks for families, assisting families to develop more efficient morning routines or even providing transportation. It has also included getting students invested in school by providing them with positive incentives to attend each day on time such as getting them interested in clubs at school or providing them with a “Check and Attend Buddy,” a positive role model for the student with whom the tardy student meets each morning once they arrive at school. In approximately 96 percent of the cases, these efforts prove successful.
If these efforts fail to improve attendance, the attendance officer initiates legal action by charging the parents in court for failing to have their child achieve acceptable levels of attendance. It’s at this juncture the Code of Virginia directs the involvement of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Some media reports or public commentaries have diminished the severity of recently publicized cases and have focused on the exact amount of time missed by the child. If a student is three minutes tardy 70 times, that is, after all, only 3 ½ hours of class time lost. While this may be technically true, it does not account for the disruption caused to the other 20-25 children in class or to the teacher. And, if you have more than one child, as was the case with at least one family, the problem is magnified further. More importantly, the consistent inability to adhere to a simple daily educational schedule is indicative of broader issues, many of which negatively impact the child’s learning experience.
In these cases, the school and the attendance officer made countless attempts in order to avoid the cases coming to court. It’s important to note that the non-attendance or tardiness records in these cases far exceeded the 10 percent to 15 percent range. In one case, the number of tardy incidents ranged between 65 and 85 depending on the specific child. This is over a school year with about 175 days.
Missed school is a lost opportunity for students. The goal of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, when tasked with the prosecution of parents whose children are chronically absent or chronically tardy, is to assist the school system toward a just resolution. That goal helps ensure a successful school year for each and every student.
A recent study conducted by the US Department of Education, found that teacher effectiveness is the strongest school-related determinant of student success, but chronic student absence or tardiness reduces even the best teacher’s ability to provide learning opportunities.
In light of the new school year being upon us, I want to ensure everyone that a few random absences or tardy days will never land a parent in court. Approximately 30-40 cases share that distinction each year. When the school system brings a chronic pattern case into the courtroom, it is only after numerous attempts have been made to communicate with and assist the family and only after all reasonable options have been thoroughly exhausted.