Last fall, the 21,000 students in Pittsburgh Public Schools faced back-to-back challenges while settling into a year of remote learning.

Instead of attending musicals or homecoming football games, students and families faced the real-world impacts of a national shutdown. As families searched for stability, students struggled to get and stay connected to online classrooms. And they had other priorities to juggle: new jobs to help their parents, mental health needs, caring for siblings or finding necessities like housing and food. Some new barriers made it difficult or impossible to show up to school.

Despite mounting barriers to virtual attendance, truancy citations summoned families and students to court, even as state lawmakers, researchers, local leaders and truancy experts urged for leniency.

Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] briefly paused truancy citations after buildings shut due to COVID but referred 952 students to court for truancy in the 2020-21 school year, according to data provided by the school district in response to a Right-to-Know request. This number does not reflect if a student was referred multiple times, which can and does happen when unexcused absences don’t stop.

Advocates note that truancy cases disproportionately involve students of color and those with disabilities. But the district said it doesn’t keep records of truancy citations broken down by race, gender or disability status, nor could it generate the records. The district isn’t required by law to track citations by group.

Parents and community members, along with PPS Board Member Pam Harbin, have raised concerns about a potential increase in absenteeism and truancy this school year because of the transition back to in-person learning, ongoing transportation woes and a controversial shift to earlier start times for high school students.

PPS says it worked to ensure schools were exhausting every effort to connect with families and address root causes of attendance barriers without court involvement, but in some cases, a court referral was the only way to engage a family.

Advocates dispute this, noting that the district has a responsibility to support students without sending them or their families to court. Getting them back to class, especially after lengthy remote learning, is critical.

Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, said schools will need to pay special attention to keeping students who are in transition grades (e.g. graduated from 8th grade and entering high school). Kids facing transitions could more easily drop off or face additional barriers as they change school environments.

“Transitions are really tricky and critical,” Balfanz said. “This year, schools are going to face kids with double transitions.”

What is truancy?

A Pennsylvania student becomes “truant” after three or more unexcused school day absences in a single year, and “habitually truant” after six.

The district’s 2020-21 code of conduct says the district notifies guardians after three unexcused absences. If absences continue, the district hosts a school attendance improvement conference (SAIC) and invites parents to create a plan to address causes of the absences and stop them. Further absence can then lead to a court citation.

Schools have the option to file a citation in court, but they don’t have to. Instead, they can also refer students to a school-based or community-based attendance improvement program, such as Focus on Attendance.

Once in court, penalties for truancy are up to the magistrate judge and include fines, community service or an approved program.

The citations are filed against a guardian in the case of minor students.

Last year, one Pittsburgh mom had five truancy cases filed with the courts between Oct. 1 and Oct. 23, court records show. She was found guilty in the truancy case in November 2020 and made nine payments to the courts totaling nearly $1,400.

Days before last Thanksgiving, a truancy case was filed against a 39-year-old mother. When all was said and done, in March 2021, she owed the court $100.

A few weeks later, just before Christmas, a truancy case was filed against a 29-year-old Pittsburgh mom. She pleaded not guilty. But when the guilty verdict was handed down, she owed more than $300 in court fees and costs.

Growing research shows good attendance is a key predictor and indicator of academic success. In 2014, the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy connected high rates of absenteeism in PPS high schools with dismal academic performance and outcomes. The research showed below-average scores on standardized tests and less proficiency in English and math when compared to neighboring districts. An October study by the group found many of the district’s schools have shown little or no improvement in absenteeism rates since 2014.

When a student is 18 or older, the truancy case is filed in their name. When they become court-involved, the impacts on their education and life can be dire. Experts say truancy cases can lead to further disengagement from school or repeated court involvement later in life. Because students of color and those from low-income backgrounds are more likely to be considered truant than their white peers due to bias, the effects are disproportionate. 

“Being absent alienates you from school, it makes you less prepared for after high school,” said Michael Gottfried, chair of the education policy division at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Varying approaches to truancy

It’s common for Pioneer Center staff to keep in daily contact with parents of their medically fragile students, so when they went days without hearing from students or families last fall, they grew concerned and jumped to action.

Specialized equipment for students at Pioneer Education Center lines the hallways.
Equipment that assists students stand and walk, among other activities, line a hallway inside Pioneer Education Center in Brookline. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Pioneer Principal David Lott spent many days last school year alongside his social worker, knocking on doors of homes to track down kids who weren’t logging on to virtual school. The students faced technology barriers as well as needs for adaptive equipment, such as larger screens and keyboards or touch screen computers.

“We were trying to do as much as we possibly can to get the kids and students online as often as possible, participating as much as possible and being with the other students,” Lott said.

Still, some students didn’t show up online. Despite the school leaders’ efforts and viewing a court referral as the last resort, Pioneer Center ultimately referred 11 of 62 students (or their guardians) to court for truancy.

The occurrence of truancy and how it is addressed varies across the district schools. There are schools with no court referrals year-over-year and those where it is much more common.

Milliones 6-12, Carrick High School and Spring Hill K-5 all referred 15% or more of their student populations to court in the 2020-21 school year. Each school referred more unique students than it did in 2019-20. Small student populations at some of the schools like Pioneer can lead to higher percentages compared to larger schools that refer more students. The two schools that referred the highest numbers of students are Allderice High School (136, 9.5%) and Carrick High School (102, 15.45%).

Five district schools maintained zero truancy referrals year over year: Whittier K‐5, Montessori PreK‐5, Linden K‐5, Dilworth PreK‐5 and City Connections.

Experts in absenteeism and truancy who reviewed the data said the district’s overall 952 court referrals reflects a lack of leniency and underscores the need to shift from punishments for truancy to more restorative reinforcements. Growing research suggests that a punitive response to attendance doesn’t help to improve attendance or educational outcomes — and can sometimes lead to worse attendance.

Pittsburgh was a microcosm of a larger trend. Reports nationwide emerged throughout the pandemic of truancy cases piling extra burden on families.

The district’s challenge

District leadership described a balancing act when it comes to addressing truancy. They need to reach out to address attendance barriers. They need to show families grace during COVID. And, they need to take action when a student continues to be absent after less punitive efforts are exhausted.

Rodney Necciai, PPS assistant superintendent of student support services, highlighted that court referrals for truancy are down from the last full in-person school year. In 2018-19, the district referred 1,035 students, down to 756 in 2019-20, though the district stopped referrals after March 13. They resumed in 2020-21, with 952 students referred for truancy.

The pandemic referrals, Necciai said, can be partially explained by disrupted outreach processes, as many of the traditional ways to connect with families were lost under COVID restrictions and fears about gathering, even in small settings.

In internal conversations early in the 2020-21 school year, Necciai said district leaders told staff to be sure to exhaust preemptive, non-punitive efforts to address attendance barriers. Principals, teachers and counselors worked with families on an individual basis to address needs. Some students needed daycare resources to help care for younger siblings, Necciai said; others needed to be connected to food or housing resources.

When all preventative measures have been exhausted or the district isn’t able to engage a family enough, at some point, the magistrate is an option, Necciai said — “the very last option.”

“And I think it is. But I think we can do better by ... having a lot more tools in our belt on the front end of things.”

Reports first emerged in the spring that parents and students were receiving truancy notices.

“It is punitive,” Necciai said, “and you don't want to ever have to do that, but sometimes that brings a different weight to the conversation, I think, in terms of what we need to do to ensure that people are motivated to be engaged.”

A ‘go to school or else’ approach

Samantha Murphy and her colleagues at the county’s Department of Human Services [DHS] have a front-row seat to truancy hearings. They meet with families and sit in courtrooms to listen to cases.

“Parents love their kids, they want them to be successful. But there's a whole bunch of stuff in the way sometimes,” Murphy said.

“And so going at somebody with this 'go to school or else' mindset isn't positive engagement, right? It doesn't help you understand what's going on or what needs to resolve to get this kid to school. We feel like we've been offering an alternative.”

Tinisha Hunt and her colleagues at Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment Center have been seeing all kinds of families needing help with attendance barriers and accessing basic necessities.

Last year, Murphy saw more local school districts raising their hands for help with tracking students down, engaging families and managing attendance challenges. And families had many needs: in-home supports such as creating morning plans, teaching how to use technology, conflict solving or connections to resources.

Focus on Attendance [FOA] brings together the county’s DHS, the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the court system and local schools to curb truancy by addressing attendance barriers without court involvement. Murphy said truancy legislation in Pennsylvania can create the perception that someone needs to be punished when a kid misses too much school. Working with FOA for a decade has taught her otherwise.

“I don’t think there’s a magic pill here,” Murphy said about improving attendance. “Except for positive relationships and positive engagement starting as early as you can.”

What experts say

When Pennsylvania truancy laws were revised in 2016, lawmakers noted that prosecuting for truancy should only be used when less punitive responses fail. The PPS code of conduct says schools will provide interventions and supports before disciplinary consequences.

Experts and advocates who reviewed the district’s truancy referral data say it underscores a fundamental problem in systems that respond punitively to absence.

Maria Searcy, who worked in the district as a member of the PPS Equity Advisory Panel, knows multiple students who struggled to get or stay connected during virtual learning due to technology issues and new life circumstances.

“Why would truancy even be an issue? Why would you be referring kids to pay fines when the system is so broken that kids couldn’t even get signed on?” Searcy said.

Others echoed her thoughts.

Ghadah Makoshi, a restorative justice advocate with the ACLU Pennsylvania, said she’s not surprised by the numbers considering how many stories she heard from parents receiving letters in the mail beckoning them to court. She also said the data may point to varying responses by teachers and principals created by a lack of more direct guidelines.

“PPS is a large district. And if there aren't guidelines, some minimum things that all schools have to follow, then it varies not just from school to school, but often from teacher to teacher, so there needs to be some basic guidelines,” Makoshi said. “And it's not like implicit bias doesn't play a role in these decisions, too.”

With 54 schools, each with their own culture, Necciai said he doesn’t know for certain that each school used truancy referrals as a last resort. But, he said, schools were encouraged to and provided a list of ways to respond to unexcused absences that don’t involve the courts.

Attendance-focused advocacy organizations, including the San Francisco-based Attendance Works, have pushed for legislative changes to truancy laws that remove punitive responses to absenteeism. And both state guidance and truancy experts say schools should get involved early on when students are absent to address root causes to missing school.

The state encouraged schools to measure remote attendance based on access to learning and completion of school work, but truancy-specific guidance mostly leaves decisions up to school districts.

What gets counted as excused versus unexcused absence is “incredibly biased,” said Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy Chang.

If there’s bias behind who receives an “unexcused” absence, and those absences are triggers for court involvement, “then you have a double whammy,” Chang said.

Gottfried added: “If some schools are more stringent or have stronger policies, then students in that school might be punished more severely. And we might be concerned about students from racial ethnic backgrounds or students from low-income backgrounds being punished more harshly because the principals in those schools have the discretion to say three truant absences and you're out.”

Gottfried said the data should compel policymakers to ask how these absence policies could be unfairly punishing students.

“If we don't have a policy that affects everyone equally, then that's a problem,” Gottfried said.

When Gottfried looks at the referral data, he’s surprised. His mind flashes through images from a year ago of students in other districts sitting on sidewalk curbs with laptops trying to connect to wifi in a McDonald’s or Starbucks to attend virtual classes.

For him, the data raised questions about how schools accounted for the unexcused absences specifically caused by the pandemic and how many students cited as truant from years past are still disengaged.

“Truancy in the pandemic didn’t mean the same as truancy in normal times.”


ABOUT THE DATA

PublicSource filed Right-to-Know Law requests with Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts to learn about truancy referrals in recent years. Here are a few important details to know:

  • Unique student referral numbers do not reflect if a student was referred multiple times.
  • Unique student referral data for 2019-2020 was collected through March 13, 2020.
  • Referral rates reflect the number of unique students referred at each school based on the 2020 school enrollment filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
  • The district does not collect records of truancy referrals by group, such as race, gender or disability status, nor could it produce the records when requested. It is not legally required to collect referrals by group or status.

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

This story was produced as part of TyLisa C. Johnson's participation in the Education Writers Association’s New to the Beat program.

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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...