Accomack County School Division Tackles Student Truancy

Accomack school board members receive certificates of appreciation for School Board Appreciation Month. From left to right are Malcolm White, Gary Reese, Edward Taylor, Vice Chairman Ronnie Holden, Chairman Paul Bull, Camesha Handy, Janet Martin-Turner, Lisa Johnson, and Jesse Speidel. Photo by Stefanie Jackson.

By Stefanie Jackson – Repeated, unexcused school absences violate state law and can lead to court dates, fines, and even jail for parents or juvenile detention for students, an Accomack school administrator has cautioned.

“Today, in fact, one of our little people was sentenced to 10 days in juvenile detention for not going to school,” Coordinator of Student Services Della Jordan informed the school board Feb. 18.

In Virginia, school attendance is mandatory for children from age 5 until age 18, as stated in state code 22.1-254.

Parents who intentionally fail to ensure their children attend school can be charged with a misdemeanor and can face fines or jail time for repeat offenses.

Jordan explained the process by which students and parents can find themselves in trouble with the law for truancy.

Every Accomack school has a truancy team that is expected to meet weekly.

Letters are sent home to parents of students who have reached three, five, six, 10, or, in some cases, 11 unexcused absences.

The truancy team is expected to schedule a meeting at school with the parent of a student who has reached five unexcused absences.

If a student continues to be truant, the student is referred to Jordan, who will review the case with school social worker Tasha Chambliss.

If the truancy still continues, the case is taken to the Accomack courthouse, and a CHINS (Child In Need of Services) petition is filed.  If the student is 13 or older, the petition is filed against the student. If the student is 12 or younger, the petition is filed against the parent.

An attorney may be appointed as a “guardian ad litem” to investigate which solution is in the best interest of the child.

The truancy team will meet after the case is presented at a hearing. It will present the judge and guardian ad litem with a plan of action at a second hearing, when the judge renders a decision.

The CHINS petition “will remain over (the student’s) head until the age of 18,” Jordan said.

This school year, the Accomack school district has filed 15 petitions for truancy and has attended court dates for eight cases.

Jordan held two professional development sessions this school year on the referral process for truant students, in October and January. Both sessions were attended by Ann Webb, of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, who coordinates with Accomack schools on truancy. 

“The term ‘truant’ sounds scary to everyone, but when you’re truant, that means your absence is unexcused,” Jordan said.

Excused absences do not count as truancy, she explained.

But repeated absences, excused or unexcused, impact education, Jordan said.

The Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10% or more of the school year for any reason.

Missing only two days of school per month, or 18 days in one school year, is chronic absenteeism, Jordan said.

Since 2018, VDOE has implemented school attendance requirements for school accreditation.

The highest level of achievement, Level One, means no more than 15% of a school’s students are chronically absent.

Level Two means no more than 25% of students are chronically absent.

Level Three means 25% or more of students are chronically absent.

Barriers to school attendance include illness, trauma, poor transportation, transiency (moving from one home to another), homelessness, or involvement in the juvenile justice system, Jordan said.

School board member Lisa Johnson asked if homelessness was a major barrier to school attendance in Accomack.

Jordan said “it could be,” but transiency is also an issue because of the migrant population.

She also noted that students must be withdrawn after 15 consecutive absences, and her team must determine what happened or where their families moved.

“We really exhaust every effort. … It’s important that we find them all.”

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