Legal Mailbag – 2-20-19

By Attorney Thomas B. Mooney, Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut

The “Legal Mailbag Question of the Week” is a regular feature of the CAS Weekly NewsBlast. We invite readers to submit short, law-related questions of practical concern to school administrators. Each week, we will select a question and publish an answer. While these answers cannot be considered formal legal advice, they may be of help to you and your colleagues. We may edit your questions, and we will not identify the authors.

Please submit your questions to: legalmailbagatcasciacdotorg.


Dear Legal Mailbag:

As an assistant principal at a large high school, it falls to me to classify absences for the purpose of the “chronic absenteeism” calculation we must do. We have our challenges at my school, and we are always close to being a school with chronic absenteeism. As you must know, if my school is so categorized, we are obliged to have an attendance review team. As far as I am concerned, we should just create such a team and be done with it. However, my principal doesn’t want to do anything he doesn’t have to do. So he has asked me to track this obligation carefully and let him know if we must have an attendance review team at my school.

Well, easier said than done. We also have our share of disciplinary issues at my school, and in any given week, there may be from two to five students out on suspension. It seems unfair to me to consider those students “absent.” After all, on the one hand, if they came to school after being suspended, they would get in more trouble. On the other hand, they are not in school, are they? So, Legal Mailbag, what’s the right answer?

Thank you,
Definitional Dilemma

Dear Dilemma:

As you correctly observe, students who are on suspension are required to be out of school. Nonetheless, for purposes of determining how many “chronically absent children” attend your school, you must count such students as absent.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-198c(a)(1) defines a “chronically absent child” as an enrolled student who is absent from school more than ten percent of the school days at any time in the school year. If fifteen percent or more of the students in your school are “chronically absent,” your school must have an attendance review team, which is responsible for “reviewing the cases of truants and chronically absent children, discussing school interventions and community referrals for such truants and chronically absent children and making any additional recommendations for such truants and chronically absent children and their parents or guardians. Each attendance review team shall meet at least monthly.” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-198a(b)(2).

The “school chronic absenteeism rate” is defined as “the total number of chronically absent children for a school in the previous school year divided by the total number of children enrolled in such school for such school year.” That’s a simple mathematic calculation, but only if you know when you should consider a child to be “absent.” Fortunately (at least in terms of the calculation), the statute is clear on this point. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-198a(a)(2) provides: “(2) “Absence” means (A) an excused absence, unexcused absence or disciplinary absence, as those terms are defined by the State Board of Education pursuant to section 10-198b.” (Emphasis added). Thus, when a student is suspended, that student is “absent” for the purposes of the “chronic absenteeism” calculation. By contrast, pursuant to a 2017 amendment, a student who serves an in-school suspension is no longer considered absent.

School officials also have an obligation to determine whether students are “truant,” and that happens when a student has more than four unexcused absences in a month or more than ten unexcused absences in a year. To provide guidance to school officials who must make that determination, the State Board of Education has adopted definitions of “excused absences,” “unexcused absences” and “disciplinary absences.” Connecticut State Department of Education, Guidelines for Implementation of the Definitions of Excused and Unexcused Absences and Best Practices for Absence Prevention and Intervention (April 2013). Interestingly, disciplinary absences are expressly excluded from the calculation of unexcused versus excused absences, and thus such absences do not count in determining whether a student is “truant.”

In sum, for purposes of determining whether a student is “chronically absent,” you must include absences that result from suspensions. However, for purposes of determining whether a student is “truant,” you may not include absences that result from such disciplinary action. Legal Mailbag has no idea why you were confused.