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Truancy bill would require call to parent within hour of students absence

(March 12, 2017) — Ohio students who miss school without an excuse can expect a phone call home within an hour of failing to arrive if a truancy bill in the legislature becomes law.

Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, proposed the bill after the disappearance and killing of 14-year-old Alianna DeFreeze.

Defreeze took two public buses each morning to E Prep, a charter school in the Union-Miles neighborhood of Cleveland. On Jan. 26, she was abducted at the second bus stop. Her body was found days afterward in an abandoned home on the city’s east side. Convicted sex offender Christopher Whitaker has been charged with aggravated murder in her death.

Now, in an effort to protect students like DeFreeze, Williams proposes requiring public schools to notify a parent within an hour of a child being marked absent without a legitimate excuse.

“The school’s technology was not working that day,” Williams said.

Not every public school has a notification system for truancy, she said. “Some schools contact a parent by the end of the day. Some, by the end of the week. Or the end of the month. Or not at all.”

Williams said she sees a phone call to the home as a necessity in missing-child cases like DeFreeze’s. If the girl’s mother had been notified early on, the investigation could have been accelerated, Williams said.

The Columbus schools’ truancy policy asks that a parent or guardian call the school before 9:30 a.m. on the day of a legitimate absence. It does not stipulate that the school call the parent if a student is marked absent without an excuse.

“The practice we have in place is that recorded absences generate an automated call toward the end of the school day or early that evening,” district spokesman Scott Varner said.

“The philosophy behind the bill is in sync with what we’re trying to do. However, the practicality needs to be examined. In a district of our size, which is 51,000 students, even if just 5 percent were absent, that’s still 2,500 phone calls to be made within an hour.”

Varner said the district is working on an app for parents that could notify them when an absence is entered into the school’s computer system.

However, he cautioned that an immediate notification process could create confusion. For example, a student might arrive a few minutes late to class, after the teacher has taken attendance. The teacher might not be able to change the recorded absence until after the class period, or later in the day.

And in Columbus high schools, Varner said, attendance is taken in each class. A student who stayed behind one period to work with a teacher might mistakenly be marked absent even while in the building.