Area schools cracking down on statewide attendance

By HASKEL BURNS,

During the course of the 2017-18 school year, branches of the Mississippi Department of Education received a total of 203 petitions from schools throughout Forrest and Lamar counties regarding violations of the Mississippi Compulsory School Attendance Law, which sets out a number of unexcused absences a student can receive before legal action is taken against a parent or guardian.

Formally known as Mississippi Code 37-13-91, it’s a policy that is taken seriously by school districts in the area, as evidenced last week when Petal Police Department officers arrested Tonya A. Istre on three counts of violating the school attendance requirement.

“Obviously, attendance is important,” said Andy Schoggin, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer at the Petal School District. “We try to stress that and keep students in school, because we feel like we can do great things with them when they’re here.

“So compulsory attendance is applicable for those 17 years of age and younger – they’re bound by compulsory attendance laws.”

Under guidelines of the attendance law, school officials are required to report to an attendance officer any student who has accumulated five or more unexcused absences, defined as absences that are not due to a valid excuse for temporary non-attendance. Examples of excused absences include illness, injury, authorized school activities and medical or dental appointments.

After the initial five unexcused absences, school officials will continue to file reports after a child has accumulated 10 and 12 absences.

“The school attendance officer, at that point – and all along – has been contacting the family, either via home, phone visit or letters,” said Toni Kersh, bureau director at MDE’s Compulsory School Attendance Department. “They have to make at least two face-to-face attempts to meet with the family, to talk to them about the importance of being in school, about the law.”

After those measures have been exhausted, the final step in the process is for the attendance officer to file a petition in a court of competence jurisdiction – either youth court or justice court. At that point, a judge makes a decision on how best to move forward, including court action, fines or incarceration.

Of the 203 petitions filed in the two counties, 157 were filed in Forrest County, with another 46 in Lamar County.

In the case of the Petal School District, officials work with Tammy Fowler, school attendance officer for MDE, who supervises the district’s attendance policy and files complaints on behalf of the district.

“She’s very thorough,” Schoggin said. “She’s really proactive and tries to work with families, but also holds them accountable when they fail to follow up to those expectations.”

The Petal School District also has its own school attendance policy, in which students who miss a certain number of days would face punishments like serving Saturday school or not being declared exempt from exams.

“That’s just a school-level attendance policy, with school-level consequences,” Schoggin said. “What Tammy does is enforces the compulsory attendance law, which is deeper in violation of that, and that’s where there’s criminal charges filed.

“As a school, we can’t actually file criminal charges – that’s her arena. She gets our data and goes from there on it.”

In addition to Istre, four other Forrest County parents or guardians have been arrested over the past year for violating the school attendance requirement: Sara Sunshine Moore, Heather Nicole Helton, Loudcrissia Nacole Bouie and Heather Charlene Freeman.

At the Forrest County School District, school officials work with attendance officer Taquanna Adams to enforce the attendance law.

“Attendance is a huge issue, and we certainly try to stay on top of it,” superintendent Brian Freeman said. “We do try to work closely with our attendance officers, and sometimes we’re real successful and sometimes we’re not as successful as I’d like to see. But we do follow the code.”

To help reduce chronic absenteeism, MDE officials recently kicked off the “Strive for Less Than Five” prevention campaign, which challenges students to have no more than five absences over the course of a school year. Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of the school year for any reason.

According to a report on MDE’s website, 14.2 percent of Mississippi students were chronically absent during the 2016-17 school year.

“The research is clear about the negative effect that chronic absenteeism has on student achievement,” Carey Wright, state superintendent of education, said on the website. “If children are not in school, they are not learning.

“Starting as early as preschool and kindergarten, chronic absence can leave 3rd graders unable to read proficiently, 6th graders struggling with coursework and high school students off track for graduation.”