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Senate Passes Truancy Bill
On October 26, 2016
Harrisburg – October 26, 2016 − The State Senate today approved bipartisan legislation authored by Senators Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) and Judy Schwank (D-Berks) that would significantly change the state’s truancy laws.
The legislation, spurred by the 2014 death of a Berks County mother in prison as a result of a truancy violation, shifts the focus of dealing with truancy to schools from the court system, and imposes new requirements before a case can be sent to the courts or a person can be jailed for truancy.
“This bill returns the power to address truancy to the schools, the administrators and teachers who know their students best,” Schwank said. “This really is the right way to address truancy.”
“The Commonwealth’s truancy statute is in dire need of revisions that will refocus the law on improving school attendance and solving a child’s problems rather than needlessly incarcerating parents who cannot afford to pay fines,” Greenleaf said. “Our current truancy statute has resulted in the tragic death of a jailed mother—and inexcusable failure of justice.”
Instead of relying on court intervention, schools would be first required to address the underlying cause of a student’s unexcused absence by the development of individualized plans. Prison sentences could be used only as a last resort and for no more than three days.
Schwank called Eileen DiNino’s 2014 death in Berks County Prison a wake-up call that led to increased awareness about the differences in how different school districts and courts handled truancy cases.
“The bill won’t bring Eileen back, but hopefully it will prevent any other family from experiencing the same pain,” Schwank said.
Under the bill, which now will be returned to the House of Representatives to approve the changes made by the Senate, schools will be required respond to truancy cases as soon as a child becomes truant. Schools would be required to notify parents or guardians and offer intervention services on the first instance of truancy.
If the truancy is repeated, schools would be required to attempt to meet with the parents or guardian and explore the need and availability of assistive services, before they could refer a case to the court system.
There could be any number of reasons for truancy, Schwank said. For example, sick or working parents who are unable to transport the student to school; or families who cannot afford childcare use students to babysit younger siblings. No matter the reason, missing school can have long-lasting repercussions, especially for low-income families.
“If students aren’t in school they can’t learn,” Schwank said. “It’s another strike against them.”