By Heather Mullinix
The policy committee of the Cumberland County Board of Education is tabling action on its attendance policy as members struggle to find an appropriate solution for students over the age of 18 that miss excessive amounts of school.
Janet Graham, principal of Cumberland County High School, said, “It’s placing a burden on our teachers.”
Graham said there were 23 members of the senior class who had unexcused absences ranging from 27 to 62 days. Under the current policy, those students are permitted to make up all their missed class work, provided they make the request upon their return to school and it does not take class time away from other students.
Graham said, “The seniors are killing us. If they don’t graduate, it hurts us. The onus is on us.”
While compulsory education laws require students to attend school and sets guidelines for consequences, which can include time in jail for truant students and their parents, the law does not apply to those students that have reached 18 years of age.
Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle wondered how students were able to pass their classes while missing so much instructional time.
“It’s amazing they are passing,” she said.
Graham said many students were getting by in their classes, and some seniors didn’t need the additional credits to graduate.
VanWinkle noted the Tennessee Department of Education had advised school systems attendance alone could not determine is a student received class credit.
“The only way the board could change that is to not allow making up the work from unexcused absences,” she said.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, said, “They’re smart enough to know we need them with all the attention on graduation rates.”
Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, questioned if the board should consider a resolution asking the state to change compulsory education laws so that they applied to students over 18 years of age. That had been proposed in the past but never got out of committees at the General Assembly.
Graham said parents often tell school administrators there is nothing they can do to make their children attend school once they’ve reached age 18. Others are no longer living with their parents.
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, said, “We all care about the graduation rate, but what we’re here to do is make our students into productive citizens.”
Graham agreed. “This is a critical time for establishing who you are and establishing habits for college and the workplace.”
Part of establishing habits is reaching kids at a younger age that have poor attendance, said Janet Brooker, attendance supervisor.
“We’re focused on catching them early,” she said. “Maybe it will show up down the road.”
When discussing not allowing make up of work, Brooker noted it took five unexcused absences before a student was considered truant. She suggested allowing make up work before that, but keeping up with each student’s unexcused absences could be difficult, VanWinkle said. She also wanted to ensure the policy was consistently enforced throughout the county.
Stone recommended tabling the discussion and checking with how other counties were addressing the problem of truancy among its 18 and older students.
A change to the extracurricular drug testing policy was not recommended by the committee, with members saying they’d like to give the policy, in effect for only one year, a little more time before they make changes.
This past year, the policy called for random drug testing of a percentage of all students involved in extracurricular school activities, beginning in the seventh grade.
No positive tests were reported this past year at any grade level, and those administering the tests found many seventh and eighth-grade students, particularly female students, were nervous and embarrassed by the testing.
Janeway said, “It’s not a ‘gotcha.’ But if even one student said no to drugs because of the drug screening, we won, because we saved one.”
There was also discussion of the policy for the disciplinary hearing authority, but recommendations to have a supervisor for another school sit on the hearings for students was not recommended. The policy committee felt that could be handled through administrative procedures.
The committee did recommend a change to the board meeting policy, calling for a moment of silence and pledge to the flag before each meeting, work session, special-called meeting and committee meeting of the board.