Palm Beach County schools are considering a new way to deal with students who are chronically absent: taking legal action against their parents.
Superintendent Robert Avossa said he’s become alarmed by the large number of absences in the county. Last year, nearly a third of elementary students, or about 27,500, missed at least 11 days of school, a slight increase from the previous year. Absenteeism increased among all demographic groups, but was particularly high among Hispanic students and those still learning English.
If the problem continues, Avossa said he’s willing to consider drastic action, including having parents arrested if their children habitually skip school.
“I’m not going to take that option off the table,” he said. “I think it gets real close to neglect when you see a kid who has missed 20, 30 or 40 days of school.”
He said chronic absenteeism is unfair not only to the child’s education, but also to teachers.
“When students don’t show up, teachers pay. Their evaluations are tied to kids’ outcomes,” Avossa said. “How can I hold a teacher accountable when the child has missed 10, 15 or 20 days of school?”
In Broward County, the greatest absenteeism problem was in high school, where the number of students chronically absent — defined by the district as at least 18 missed days — was about 14,200 students, according to preliminary data. That’s more than 20 percent of all high school students and was increase from 12.3 percent the year before.
The jump baffled school officials.
“You might have some changes from year to year, but not usually such a drastic change,” said Laurel Thompson, Broward’s director of student services.
To combat the problem, the district created a new full-time staff position devoted to attendance and started an annual “attendance symposium,” where district officials, law enforcement officials, parents, students and community members discuss ways to get kids to go to school every day.
It has also expanded the number of schools offering free breakfast as a way to get kids to school early.
Broward officials say they aren’t considering taking legal action against parents.
But Avossa’s suggestion wouldn’t be unprecedented.
Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, conducted a “truancy sweep” in 2014, arresting 18 parents whose students were chronically absent. They were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and failure to comply with compulsory school attendance laws. They faced up to a year in jail, although it’s unclear whether they were ultimately convicted, according to the Florida Times-Union.
It’s also not clear whether it worked. The most recent absentee figures in Duval County shows that truancy doubled, The Times-Union reported.
While Palm Beach school district officials don’t know all of the causes for the attendance problems, Avossa said one factor may be immigration concerns. He said there were messages on Facebook last year after President Trump’s election suggesting that immigration sweeps might be done at schools. All three South Florida school districts say their districts are safe spaces for immigrations and they won’t cooperate with immigration officials wanting to deport students.
Avossa said he’s also looking at other strategies to improve attendance. The school district is sharing student information with the West Palm Beach Housing Authority in hopes they will put pressure on families if their children stay home from school.
“I’m not advocating anyone be evicted, but I think you can apply a certain amount of pressure to warn them that their benefits may need to be re-looked at if they don’t send their kids to school,” he said.
The district also changed its school calendar this year to deal with attendance issues. It is giving students the full week of Thanksgiving off, instead of just Wednesday through Friday, after noticing low attendance on the Monday and Tuesday of that week.
It has also eliminated four half-days, which were creating difficulties for many working parents, said Nina Lant, principal at Heritage Elementary in Greenacres.
“Our absences would almost double on those days,” she said.