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By Teri Finneman, Published June 09 2010

ND seeks solutions to students skipping school

BISMARCK – Education officials believe North Dakota has a problem with the number of students who skip school, but varied record keeping makes it difficult to tell how bad the problem is.

Representatives of the state’s Truancy Committee presented lawmakers with a list of recommendations Tuesday during the interim Education Committee meeting.

The proposals aim to create consistency across the state through a definition of truancy, a common data collection process and funding to address the issue.

“Do we have a truancy problem? Yes, I believe that we do, and I believe that the problem continues to increase,” said Val Fischer, director of the Coordinated School Health and Adult Education Unit within the Department of Public Instruction.

In rural areas, school is generally the place to be socially, she said. But in larger communities and on reservations, there can be more of a disconnect as far as the value of education and being in school, she said.

Under the proposal, truancy would be “any unexcused absence by a student under the age of 16 to include: three consecutive unexcused days within a semester or six one-half unexcused days within a semester (elementary school) or 21 class hours.”

Locally, schools could determine the number of truancies before notifying parents and credit loss. Schools could also develop more stringent policies.

Rep. David Monson, R- Osnabrock, said he had “a little reservation” about putting wording into law and then saying local entities can have their own definitions.

Rep. Rod Froelich, D-Selfridge, also had concerns.

“If the state is going to set certain code for this or that, that doesn’t always work within each community or each culture,” he said.

Rep. RaeAnn Kelsch, R-Mandan, said it’s good the issue is being explored, but she still sees a problem with excused absences being used to skip school.

She said students whose parents don’t care are going to say, “Yes, I called in. Yes, I wrote that note. Yes, it was me.”

Fischer said there are kids who fall through the cracks, but local districts also should know the kids and parents and know when something isn’t right.

Rep. John Wall, R-Wahpeton, also discussed excused absences.

“Frankly, my experience was never lost days due to truancy. It was lost excused days,” said Wall, a former teacher. “In my experience, that was a bigger threat than truancy.”

Fischer said the Truancy Committee’s work is a starting point to address the issue.

Once officials know the extent of the problem, they can look at prevention and intervention strategies, she said.

“Finding some common data collection and identification of terms is going to give us an accurate picture of what we need,” she said.

Some states link truancy with other consequences, like losing a driver’s license, she said.

“Truancy has become an educational crisis and, at this time, almost every state in our nation is attempting to address truancy in some way,” she said.

Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.