Wait, How Many Public School Students Are Truant?

The D.A.'s Office and the School District of Philadelphia aren't playing well together.

Photo | It's Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo | It’s Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

There was a moment during Monday’s marathon City Council hearing on youth gun violence that could have been punctuated with the jarring sound of an old record being scratched.

First Assistant District Attorney George Mosee told City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and other members of Council’s Committee on Public Safety that on any given day, almost 50 percent of Philadelphia public school kids aren’t in school.

The district has roughly 134,000 students. If that number were accurate, the city’s truancy problem would be indescribably bad, even by Hunger Games standards.

Karyn Lynch, chief student support officer for the School District of Philadelphia, testified that Mosee’s estimate was wrong — like, dramatically wrong. The council members repeatedly quizzed both Mosee and Lynch about truancy, exposing a simmering tension between the School District and the D.A.’s Office over how to drive down the number of kids who skip school.

We tried to sort things out today.

Let’s start out with that almost 50 percent figure. Lynch told Philadelphia magazine this morning that the average daily attendance for the district is actually 91.5 percent. Thus far this year, 77 percent of the district’s students have missed five days or fewer, she said.

“The overwhelming majority of our children are attending school on an ongoing basis,” she said.

OK, so Mosee’s math was off. Lynch said he told her he’d just heard that 50 percent figure from somewhere else. But in a series of tweets yesterday and during an interview Tuesday afternoon, District Attorney Seth Williams said the high school dropout rate is actually the figure that’s hovering near 50 percent. (Mosee, he said, might have made a misstatement.)

Williams said former School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and former deputy superintendent Leroy Nunnery gave him that information firsthand, and also discussed with him the district’s truancy woes.

But School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the dropout rate for the class of 2014 was just 26 percent.

Beyond the numbers, there’s a bigger disagreement here between the two entities. Williams wants to partner with the School District on a D.A.’s Office initiative that at least 54 local charter schools participate in. The district says it’s prohibited by federal law from playing along.

Sounds weird, right? Hang on.

The initiative works like this: If a student is absent 10 or more times in a marking period, their personal information is shared with the D.A.’s Office, which in turn sends a letter to the child’s parent.

Williams said the parent has 14 days to contact the child’s school and hash out the problem. If the parent doesn’t respond, the D.A.’s Office sends out another letter, with a warning to contact the school within 14 days, or face the possibility of being charged with reckless endangerment.

If the parent still doesn’t respond, a third letter arrives, breaking the news that reckless endangerment charges are indeed being filed.

“It’s the worst case scenario,” Williams said. “But if a parent thumbs their nose three times, and the child remains chronically truant, then we’d have them arrested.”

The goal, he said, isn’t to fill up an entire prison wing with parents of truant students. Ideally, the parents would end up in front of a judge in Family Court who could get them the help and services they need. If all goes well, the charges are dropped, and the parent’s record is wiped clean.

“People say you catch more bees with honey than vinegar,” Williams said. “But some people need the vinegar. We have to say, ‘Look, your kid’s not going to school, we might charge you.'”

But Lynch said the school district can’t participate in the D.A.’s initiative because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that protects student education records.

“FERPA identifies what data can and cannot be shared,” she said. “Basically, we can share directory information. We can tell [the D.A.’s Office] a student’s address and phone number, but we cannot share student-specific data. We can’t say, ‘John Smith has six unexcused absences, and 10 religious absences, and 25 excused absences.'”

Lynch said the district has turned to the U.S. Department of Education and a Family Court judge for permission to give Williams the information he’d need, but were turned down both times.

Williams argued that there’s another option. FERPA, he said, has a provision that allows for school districts to share additional student information with a law enforcement agency if they obtain a memorandum of understanding.

Lost in all of the back-and-forth is the fact that the school district already has a similar policy in place. Lynch said the district refers chronically truant students and their families to the Department of Human Services.

“I don’t know what people think we do here,” she said. “Attendance is an electronic process, especially in our high schools. We’re accurately keeping track of who’s there and who’s not there … it’s not something we do haphazardly.”

Williams said he’s not trying to antagonize the district or Superintendent William Hite. There’s a worrisome connection between kids who drop out of school, or don’t bother going regularly, and then end up committing a violent crime, or becoming the victim of one.

“I’m just saying, clearly what we’re doing now isn’t enough,” he said. We have a dysfunctional system, and I want to be part of the solution.”

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