Students must attend school until they're 18 or graduate from high school, according to California law. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

Black students in California have much higher rates of unexcused absences from school than their white peers, which sometimes lead to disciplinary consequences that can further disrupt their education, according to newly released data.

The data, released in November, represents the first time the California Department of Education has broken down absenteeism rates by the reasons for students missing school — whether students were excused, say, for an illness or doctor’s appointment, or unexcused, defined as missing school without a “valid” reason. Lack of transportation to school, among the most common reasons students miss school, is typically an unexcused absence.

The data covers two school years, 2017-18 and 2018-19, before schools shifted to distance learning in March 2020 due to the pandemic. Districts with high absenteeism rates before the pandemic are expected to see similarly high rates when schools return to in-person classes.

By the numbers

 According to the data, Black students missed an average of 13.2 days of school in 2018-19, compared to 9.1 days among white students. Of those absences, schools recorded 52.7% of Black students’ absences as unexcused — meaning they did not have an authorized reason to be out of school and could potentially face disciplinary measures. By comparison, 29.4% of white students’ absences were unexcused.

“That discrepancy is problematic,” said Clea McNeely, a research professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who has studied trends in student attendance. “If you browse the data, in school after school, you’ll see that students of color — especially Black and Native American students — who miss school are put on a punitive path that can push them further out of school, rather than a supportive path aimed at keeping them in school.”

Reasons can vary

Each school district has its own protocols, but in general, absences are excused if a student is ill, attending a funeral, has a doctor’s appointment or is engaged in a pre-arranged activity like “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” Unexcused absences can be anything else, but common reasons include taking care of younger siblings, helping a grandparent or a lack of transportation to school — issues more likely to affect students from lower-income families.

Although students of all backgrounds occasionally skip class, that’s only a small percentage of unexcused absences, especially among elementary and middle school students, McNeely said. Most unexcused absences are due to circumstances beyond the student’s control, such as a lack of transportation, she said.

States fund schools based on attendance, regardless of whether students’ absences are excused or unexcused. But students with multiple unexcused absences can face an array of punishments, such as a hearing before a discipline committee, detention or the inability to make up tests or homework. Under the state penal code, students with 18 or more unexcused absences in a school year can be considered truant and referred to local law enforcement. Their parents can face fines of up to $2,000 and a year in jail.

Excused absences

Meanwhile, students with excused absences face little if any consequences. They’re usually allowed to make up assignments and given help to catch up. They’re never referred to law enforcement. Some districts even mark students excused if they’re on a family vacation.

The result is a two-tiered system that supports some students who miss class, but criminalizes others, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit aimed at improving student attendance.

“We need to take a hard look at how the truancy system works, and ask ourselves if the truancy system itself needs transformation,” Chang said.

For some students, repeated absences can affect their academic performance and the way a student feels about school generally, even if the situation never escalates to a truancy hearing.

Shawn Brown is now a senior in high school. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

When Shawn Brown was in middle school in the Central Valley, there was a period when getting to school was a constant struggle. His parents’ car had broken down, and he had to take a bus across town. Nearly every day Brown was either late or absent entirely.

“All the time. That’s how often I got marked absent,” said Brown, 17, who is Black. “It was a double problem because I was in trouble for missing school, and then I was so behind I didn’t know what was going on in class. It was bad.”

The period lasted about a month. No one at the school offered to help him, he said, although his parents were notified of his sporadic attendance.

Alameda County's attendance policy

Each school, district and county in California has its own attendance policy, and some are more punitive than others. Alameda County takes an approach aimed at returning the students to school instead of punishing the parents. For the past 17 years, Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick has run a program for students who are chronically absent and their families that’s been more than 90% successful at getting students back in class.

School districts refer families to Drenick’s office if a student has been seriously absent, for example missing more than 100 days of a 180-day school year. Drenick’s office summons the family to court, but then — instead of a fine and jail time — the families are given access to counseling, health services, bus passes and anything else they need to keep their children in school. The program is currently being conducted virtually because courts are closed for in-person hearings.

“Our aim is not to punish. Even though it’s a court setting, the atmosphere is 100% warm and focused on problem-solving,” Drenick said.

Often, families’ difficulties are related to poverty, not neglect or irresponsibility, she said. For example, parents might not have a car to drive their children to school, or sometimes lack money for bus or BART fare, or need babysitting for younger siblings. Or parents who don’t speak English might have an appointment and need their child to translate. In some cases, students have chronic health problems like asthma, but parents lack money for inhalers and air filters.

In some cases parents don’t understand the law in California, which requires that children attend school from ages 6 to 18 or until they’ve graduated from high school. In one case, a parent worked graveyard shifts and was unable to walk her elementary-aged child to school because she went to sleep at 6 a.m. Drenick explained that, tired as parents may be, they still have a legal responsibility to get their children to school, and they should find another time to sleep.

In most cases, parents are eager for their children to attend school, but face barriers, she said. The D.A.’s office works with the county health agency and a local nonprofit to provide families whatever they need, even visiting their homes if necessary.

“As the District Attorney’s Office, it’s in our best interest. Our goal is to create safer communities, and this is one area where we can be proactive by keeping kids in school and out of the criminal justice system,” Drenick said.

‘Attendance teams’ in Riverside County

Riverside County has taken a similar approach. Amir Alavi, a former prosecutor and director of chronic absenteeism reduction for the Riverside County Office of Education, has created “attendance teams” at individual school sites to address whatever problems families face getting their children to school.

The teams can include teachers, counselors, administrators, clerks, a school nurse, parents and students. If the student has health problems, they’ll connect them with a local clinic. If the student is experiencing emotional challenges, the team can offer counseling. If the family needs help with transportation, the team will arrange it.

“We’ve found that when a student has low attendance, it’s almost always due to larger underlying needs,” Alavi said. “And in my experience as a prosecutor, the punitive approach to attendance is not effective. … We don’t want to impose penalties on families who, quite frankly, are already experiencing serious difficulties.”

The method has worked. Schools with “attendance teams” have seen significant reductions in absenteeism, he said. The program has continued online during school campus closures, and will return to in-person meetings after campuses reopen.

Brown, the Fresno student who’s struggled with attendance, started getting to school on time when his parents got a new car, and his grades rose, too. He was even recognized by his school for turning his grades around. He’s now a senior in high school and hopes to enroll in college next year.

Schools should take a more sympathetic approach when students miss school, he said. As a middle-schooler, he felt frustrated and defeated when he couldn’t make it to class, and his grades suffered.

“You don’t know what kids are going through at home,” he said. “Sometimes it’s hard.”

Story originally published by EdSource.