Too many unexcused absences from school can land parents, or a student if they’re legally an adult, in court. Under state truancy laws, a Pennsylvania student who accumulates three or more unexcused absences in a single school year is considered “truant.” In the worst cases, truancy can lead to hundreds of dollars in fines or years of court involvement. Advocates say truancy is another way students can end up in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Each year, thousands of Allegheny County families receive letters in the mail summoning them to court because a student has racked up too many unexcused absences. A PublicSource investigation found that 952 Pittsburgh Public Schools students were referred to the courts in the first pandemic school year. Nearly 2,000 cases were filed in Allegheny County courts between January and June 2021.

Advocates and truancy experts encourage school districts to avoid court involvement or punitive responses to truancy, highlighting research that shows it is not effective. Lawmakers and state leaders have urged districts to only use prosecution for truancy as a last resort. Even as state lawmakers, researchers, local leaders and truancy experts urged for further leniency in the 2020-21 school year, students were still sent to court. In the new school year, some have raised concerns about potential rises in truancy and absenteeism as students adjust to the routine of being back in buildings amid COVID. 

Truancy has many layers. Here, you will find information that bursts four common myths about truancy in Pennsylvania:

Myth: Schools are required to refer all truant kids to court.

While yes, Pennsylvania school districts have the option to file a truancy citation with the courts, researchers, public officials and advocates agree taking families to court is not mandatory — and it’s often the wrong way to go. “It is an option to refer a family for truancy court. It is not a requirement,” said Hetal Dhagat, a Pittsburgh-based lawyer with the Education Law Center.

State guidance urges schools to support families through interventions, instead of sending them to court. Following 2016 revisions to truancy laws, the state said that schools should exercise caution and reason. The state also maintains that prosecuting for truancy should only be used when other, less punitive measures, like an attendance improvement plan, have been unsuccessful.

Growing research suggests that punitive responses to absenteeism such as court involvement for truancy don’t curb absence or improve educational outcomes, and in some cases, they worsened outcomes.

Myth: Chronic absence and truancy only impact high schoolers.

Lower grades and other impacts of truancy and chronic absence can be more visible for older students. Still, research shows absenteeism in young students, especially those from low-income households, can transform into poor education outcomes. Chronic absence in early school years is correlated with reading difficulty and poor attendance in later years. 

“We see the highest absences in kindergarten of all years of elementary school,” said Researcher Michael Gottfried, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Those rates aren’t as high again until kids are in middle school, so this is definitely something that’s affecting young kids as well.”

A child who is chronically absent in kindergarten is less likely to read proficiently in third grade. Monitoring absenteeism in kindergarten can be an effective strategy for finding and tackling educational and familial issues before attendance becomes a more challenging issue.

“Being absent leads to disengagement,” Gottfried said. “Being absent alienates you from school. It makes you less prepared for after high school.”

Myth: Parents, guardians or students can’t dispute truancy cases.

Parents, guardians or students have multiple chances to show evidence or explain why a student is struggling with attendance or has valid reasons for missing school, both before and in court. When initially cited as truant, parents and students can show evidence that absences were justified, such as a religious holiday or tutoring, or push for the school to develop a school attendance improvement plan and advocate for supports and services to address attendance barriers. If parents end up before a judge, they can still bring proof such as doctor’s notes, correspondence with school staff or other items that show they took “every reasonable step” to ensure the student’s attendance. Students and families can also appeal fines and other court orders.

Myth: There’s little connection between truancy, race and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Black and Brown students may be significantly more likely to be deemed truant than their white peers. Research points to racial and ethnic disparities in disciplinary responses to absenteeism.

School absenteeism policies, which dictate when a student is absent or present, may be a driving force for minority students being overrepresented in the juvenile court system. Highly discretionary policies around excused and unexcused absences lead to racial disparities in whose absences are more likely to be designated unexcused. A 2021 study found that on average, Native American and Black students were more likely to have absences defined as unexcused. Black students were nearly three times more likely than white students to be petitioned to juvenile court for truancy. The increased possibility of court involvement and the detrimental impacts on academic outcomes for students and their life post-high school both point to a connection between truancy and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Need more facts?

We’ll walk you through it another way.

What is truancy anyway? 

When a Pennsylvania student earns three unexcused absences in a school year, they become “truant.” An attendance officer or the superintendent is required legally to give written notice to parents or guardians. After being notified, parents have three school days to ensure a student is back in class before the school may take further action. A student becomes habitually truant after six or more unexcused absences. 

How is that different from chronic absence?

Chronic absence is generally missing 10% or more of school days, excused or unexcused. Truancy and chronic absence, while sometimes used interchangeably, express different aspects of absenteeism. 

Attendance Works, a national attendance research organization, says fixing truancy often becomes a question of ensuring compliance with rules, which can create run-ins with the legal system. Truancy relies on punitive consequences, while chronic absenteeism focuses on the academic consequences that come with lost learning time. Chronic absence often receives a more compassionate approach, recognizing the barriers such as homelessness or transportation that create absenteeism but don’t call for punitive response.

How can a school district respond to truancy? 

School districts have options. 

They can file a truancy citation with the local magisterial district judge, and a truancy hearing will be scheduled.

But while that’s a possibility, they don’t have to. 

When a student becomes truant, the school must notify guardians. At six or more unexcused absences, when a student is habitually truant, children younger than 15 must be referred to either a school- or community-based attendance improvement program, or the county’s children and youth services agency. For habitually truant students ages 15 and older, the school is required to refer the student to an attendance improvement program, refer the student to the county’s children and youth agency or file a citation. 

If a student refuses the program, the school can refer the student to the county’s children and youth agency.

Districts are mandated to convene a School Attendance Improvement Conference (SAIC) with the child, the guardian or parent, school staff and community service providers to identify barriers to attendance and make an improvement plan to get the student back on track.

Justice advocates and the Pennsylvania Department of Education urge alternatives to court to help families to address barriers to attendance, such as transportation. 

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org or on Twitter at @tylisawrites.

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TyLisa C. Johnson

TyLisa C. Johnson is the Audience Engagement Editor at PublicSource. She’s passionate about telling compelling human stories that intersect with complex issues affecting marginalized groups. Before joining...