By Heather Mullinix
Stressing communication as the key for parents, students and school administrators to work out problems in the attendance policy, the policy committee recommended no more changes to the policy.
Scott Maddox, principal of Stone Memorial High School, said, "If there are extenuating circumstances, we can excuse an absence if they will communicate with us."
Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, added, "If there is a problem the parent feels strongly enough they need to take the child out of school and they explain it to you, I can't imagine our principals not allowing it."
"If they tell you before hand," Maddox said. "If they do it and then come back and tell you, there's a problem."
Vivian Hutson, 6th District representative, questioned a policy at the high school of charging a student with two tardies if a parent signs the student out and back in during the same school day, and said she felt it was creating a "double jeopardy" for the student.
"He's saying, 'Why take me back if I'm going to get a tardy,'" Hutson said. "I can see how this could be an issue. If they're making the effort to come back, they shouldn't get two tardies. I think there will be a lot who just stay home."
But the attendance policy now does not allow work to be made up for unexcused absences, and a child not returning to school could face a penalty of missed grades and assignments.
Janet Graham, K-12 curriculum supervisor, explained that if the student leaves school for an excused reason, such as a dental appointment or medical appointment, and returns, the times are recorded but there is no penalty.
If the student is signed out and then returns later in the day, but the absence is for a non-excused reason, the student is charged a tardy for leaving and a tardy when they return. After four tardies, students face disciplinary action, including detention, and those tardies can add up, making the student ineligible for exam exemptions or triggering a summons to truancy court.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, said after some discussion, "There was a decision made and, to me, it's really no different than not going to class on time. I don't feel that it needs to change."
Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, said part of the purpose of the school system was to prepare students for the "real world," where being late for work, leaving work early, or not showing up at all would result in penalties, including loss of a job.
"At work, you're there or you're not. After three, you're going to get coaching. After six, you're terminated," he said. "If a student is being checked out and it isn't for a doctor's appointment or something like that, it should be unexcused. There are lots of appointments you can schedule after school. What are we teaching our children that we will accept and then, when they go into the real world, it's not that way?"
Brewer noted the policy now allowed for absences from school to be excused if they are requested in advance with proper documentation. The policy also allows for excused absences should there be, in the opinion of the principal, an emergency the student has no control over.
She questioned something that might come up unexpectedly, such as a child needing to be signed out to testify in court regarding custody during a divorce proceeding, or other such matters.
Graham said the schools always comply with requests of the court. She added there might be other special circumstances, such as a parent receiving an award and the family wanting the children to be present.
"We don't discourage those kinds of things, but they've got to communicate with us before hand," Graham said.
Finding out weeks or months after the tardies were charged that there was a reason for the student to be signed out that may have been excused is often what happens, Graham explained. At that time, there is little administration can do to resolve the situation, she said.
"We're not unreasonable people," Graham said. "What usually happens is we've had an extreme amount of time lapse and they've not communicated with us. Then it becomes an unexcused tardy and they have to take a test. That's when they get excited about it."
Tim Claflin, school safety supervisor, questioned if tardies which were tracked for those students merely late to class, but not late for school or leaving early, were tracked differently.
"The judge will ask 'Why is the kid in front of me for truancy when he's not truant?'" Claflin said.
Graham said attendance clerks had the ability to check if the tardies were for being late to school or for being late to class after they arrived at school. She believed procedural guidance to attendance clerks could be provided to resolve that situation.
The committee noted the policy did not state that the 13 tardies that would trigger an appearance in truancy court are unexcused tardies.
The committee is also considering development of a non-retaliation policy to protect employees who report possible ethical violations, as well as discouraging false accusations. The policy would be referenced in other policies, such as the ethics policies, and would also outline what someone should do if they believe they have been retaliated against.
Susan Huneycutt, assistant director of human resources, proposed a new policy or a simple statement to add to the existing ethics policy.
"A separate policy says you strongly believe retaliation shouldn't happen, but it also notes the consequences for making a false accusation, and it lets people know what that is," Huneycutt said.
The committee will discuss the policy next month after it has been reviewed by the Tennessee School Boards Association and BOE Attorney Earl Patton.
The complaint policy was approved with changes to the times permitted for each step of the process, with the committee changing the time to file a complaint 20 calendar days, instead of 20 school days. Stone was concerned specifying school days in the policy could allow a complaint at the end of a school year to continue into the following school year.
"We need to resolve a complaint as close as possible to situation," Stone said. "I don't want something to linger because of the language of the policy."
Brewer agreed, adding, "We need to know if there is a problem right away."
Janeway explained the committee had recommended changing many of the time requirements in half to speed up the process to resolve a complaint.
Janeway said the proposed policy changes had been reviewed by Patton and TSBA, and both believed the changes to be in line with statutory requirements.
The committee agreed to recommend the changes to the full board for consideration.