Parent questions DOE crackdown on chronic absenteeism

The state is sending a message to parents: Send your child to school or we may take you to court.

It’s an effort to crackdown on chronic absenteeism, but the warning has one mother questioning Department of Education policies.

Her daughter has missed a bunch of school for medical reasons and had excused absences. She turned to us for help, worried she’ll get in trouble.

The Department of Education says it doesn’t really matter if the absence is excused or not. If the child misses too many days in school, parents run the risk of going to Family Court.

But the DOE points out, that is a last resort.

Angel Vance Salas was upset when she got a call from Waiahole Elementary School about her daughter’s absences. Even more so when her daughter was sent a letter of agreement that says more absences could mean having to go to Family Court.

“Which I feel as a threat and a very serious threat because when you get a social worker involved, in their words it’s CPS, and once you get CPS involved, you’ll never get them off basically,” Salas said.

Her daughter is a kindergartener who has missed 11 days of school this year. Ten of those days were excused because she broke her arm and received a lot of dental work.

The school told her it doesn’t matter. So we went to DOE’s deputy superintendent Ronn Nozoe for answers.

“The research around excused or unexcused is basically the same children who are not in school achieve less,” he said.

Nozoe said the DOE started tracking chronic absenteeism last year as part of the Strive HI campaign and it has made a dramatic improvement in attendance.

Chronic absenteeism means 15 or more missed school days in one school year. Last year when DOE started cracking down, Nozoe says there were 5,000 fewer chronic absentee students, a drop of 39 percent, from the previous year.

The idea is for students to get better grades by not missing as much class time, and officials at the DOE say they’re already seeing positive results.

“Schools that have made significant improvements, they have become recognition schools, so it’s proven that if kids attend school, they will perform a lot better,” said Board of Education vice chairman Brian De Lima.

Schools will notify parents even before the 15 absences and try to work with them on how to prevent any more.

If there are medical issues, Nozoe says tutors can visit the child’s home or even the hospital. The threat of going to Family Court will only happen if parents refuse to cooperate.

As for Salas, she says she will not sign the school’s letter of agreement the way it’s written.

“Unless he rewrites that agreement with his facts straight, I would like not to see the Family Court in there or the social worker in there,” she said.

Salas wants to meet with school officials and work with them.

We’re still waiting to find out from the DOE how many parents have actually been taken to Family Court because of their child’s absences.

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