School officials seek Malheur County law to curb high student absenteeism

VALE – About one-fourth of all local students are chronically absent and local education leaders want to tackle the problem by giving school officials and police the ability to issue citations to keep kids in school.

A proposed Malheur County ordinance allows the citation of a parent or guardian for a student’s chronic absence. That is defined as missing 10% or more of scheduled school days.

Mark Redmond, superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District, Alisha McBride, superintendent of the Vale School District, and several other school officials briefed the Malheur County Court last month on the proposal. The court took no action on the proposal.

Redmond said absenteeism in the county is “pretty significant,” with more than 1,000 students regularly missing class.

“It is a combination of a lot of things. It is not just a school issue. Truancy can be a transportation issue, a child care issue, a health issue and it can be a parent issue with challenges getting their kids to school,” said Redmond.

Statistics from the education service district show the Annex School District recorded a 45% absenteeism rate during the 2021-2022 school year. That means out of 105 students enrolled, 48 were classified as chronically absent.

In the Vale School District where 833 students were enrolled in the 2022 school year, 299 youth were listed as chronically absent.

In the Ontario School District, with 594 of 2,179 students were recorded as chronically absent.

“When 25 percent (of students) are chronically absent, we are teaching them how not to show up for work,” said Redmond.

In the past, school districts could get help from a truancy court – overseen by the justice of the peace – but Senate Bill 817, passed by the Legislature in 2021, eliminated fees, court costs and fines connected to juvenile delinquency issues. That meant, at least locally, the Malheur County Justice Court could not enforce truancy infractions.

“There is no statue that gives me any power to do anything about truancy – no statute for an officer to cite the family,” said Margie Mahoney, Malheur County justice of the peace.

Redmond said at least two other counties in Oregon – Lake and Josephine – have truancy ordinances on their books. He said does not know how effective those ordinances have been.

Slashing that absenteeism rate is crucial for students down the road, said Redmond.

“There is an amount of research that ties attendance to a lot of different metrics – high school graduation rates, going to college rate, success in later life,” said Redmond.

Under the proposed ordinance, a county truancy program would endow “law enforcement and school officials with the authority to issue infraction citations and take other action with regard to students and a student’s parent, guardian, or other responsible adult who fails to comply with school attendance requirements of state laws and rules.”
If a parent or guardian fails to ensure their student does not miss more than 10% of school days, a “law enforcement official or school officials may issue a citation to a student or responsible adult.”

Before a citation is issued, a school district superintendent or the superintendent of the Malheur Education Service District must furnish the student and the responsible adult with a written notification. The notice would require the student and the responsible adult to attend a conference with a school official where the “expectations for the student’s regular attendance at the school will be outlined.”

If the student continues to be chronically absent or fails to attend the conference, a citation will be issued.

According to the ordinance, “the citation will direct the student (if the student is in the 6th thought 12th grade) and the responsible adult to appear at Justice Court.”

If the student and the responsible adult don’t appear in court, Mahoney could issue a warrant.

A parent or responsible adult can be fined up to $500 for the first offense and a second penalty of up to $1,000 for a second offense.

A parent or responsible adult can petition the Justice Court to defer the fine under certain conditions set by the Justice of the Peace.

If the county adopts the truancy act, said Mahoney, she can act.

“Then I can make the effort to do something about it,” said Mahony.

Redmond said if the county court approves the ordinance, the new mandate would not be enforced until the beginning of the 2023 school year.

The truancy problem needs to be addressed, he said.

“It is essentially putting truancy court back into effect in Malheur County,” said McBride.

McBride said the pandemic played a role in the spike in absent students across the county.

“After Covid almost every school district has seen a pretty significant increase in chronic absenteeism,” said McBride.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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