Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

legal_mailbag_transparentDear Legal Mailbag:

The beginning of the year is an exciting time, but there are always some students who don’t show up for the party. To be sure, we try to track them down by attempting to contact their parents with letters, documented phone call attempts and even emails. But often we come up empty. I think I heard somewhere that we can just remove students who are non-attendees during the first ten days of school from our school rosters? That would make life a lot easier. Is that OK?

I figure this is a timely question as most Connecticut schools are approaching this 10-day benchmark.

Keeping It Simple

Dear Simple:

Though simple, such policies are inconsistent with district legal obligations. We are aware of at least one district that had such a policy of automatically disenrolling students after they are absent for ten straight days. That policy led to a complaint to the State Department of Education, and the district later changed the policy. The problem is that students can be absent for different reasons, and school districts are responsible for ensuring that students residing in the school district attend school one way or the other. The fact that an enrolled student is not attending school should be the beginning of the inquiry, not the end.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220 provides that boards of education “shall cause each child five years of age and over and under eighteen years of age living in the school district to attend school in accordance with the provisions of section 10-184 . . . .” Moreover, school districts are obligated to provide educational services to children from age five to twenty-one or until high school graduation, whichever comes first. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-186. To be sure, Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-184 permits parents to withdraw their children from school, but only if (1) the child is seventeen years of age, and (2) “[s]uch parent or person shall personally appear at the school district office and sign a withdrawal form. Such withdrawal form shall include an attestation from a guidance counselor or school administrator of the school that such school district has provided such parent or person with information on the educational options available in the school system and in the community.” In addition, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-184 permits parents to show that their children are elsewhere receiving instruction. Resident children of school age thus may withdraw at age seventeen or attend school elsewhere, but school officials must follow up on such situations.

In order to meet these responsibilities, school officials must first determine what children reside in the school district. The statutes require that the board of education identify children of compulsory education age on an annual basis, either by enumerating each child individually or by any other reasonable means approved by the Commissioner of Education. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-249. This statute, which has been essentially unchanged for over fifty years, further provides that, if a child of school age is not attending school, the superintendent “shall make a reasonable effort to ascertain the reason for such nonattendance.” (Emphasis added).

School districts must, therefore, establish policies or procedures for the enrollment and disenrollment of students, and those policies must provide for a inquiry into the facts before a student is disenrolled. If after the diligent efforts you describe, you do not hear from parents and you have no other reason to believe that the student still resides in the district, you may disenroll the student. However, if you have evidence that the student is indeed residing in the district, you have more work to do. The parent may show that the child is either attending a private school or otherwise receiving instruction equivalent to the studies taught in the public schools. If no such showing is made for a resident student, the special education regulations require that school officials promptly refer students to PPT if their attendance, academics or behavior is unsatisfactory. Finally, when the failure to attend school is not a special education issue (e.g., school avoidance), school officials must follow the policies and procedures the board of education must establish under Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-198a for dealing with “truants.” That term is defined by that statute as “a child age five to eighteen, inclusive, who is enrolled in a public or private school and has four unexcused absences from school in any one month or ten unexcused absences from school in any school year.” Those procedures include scheduling meetings with parents and, at least for the next year, filing family with service needs petitions in certain situations.

Other than that, you are fine.

Please submit your questions to: legalmailbag@casciac.org.