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High absentees last year prompt truancy letters

Many parents were put on notice last week that their child’s attendance will be closely monitored this school year in hopes that they won’t have as many unexcused absences as they did last year.
Shawn Donahue, deputy prosecutor for Harrison County, said more than 400 letters were mailed out, with most of them arriving in mailboxes last Wednesday. They were signed by Donahue as well as Elizabeth Day, the chief juvenile probation officer.
‘The letters went to parents of children with five or more unexcused (absences) last year,’ he said.
The letter outlines how the schools forward complaints to the Harrison County Juvenile Probation Dept. and the prosecutor. A petition can then be filed alleging delinquency, the letter states, but it also warns that the prosecutor’s office can file charges of neglect of a dependent against the parents.
Donahue said the neglect of a dependent charge is a Class D felony, punishable by six months to three years in jail and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
Parents who questioned whether their child truly had at least five unexcused absences were encouraged to contact their child’s school. Some of those did.
Kelly Simpson and Doug Dodge, principal and assistant principal, respectively, at North Harrison High School, said Thursday night that they each had fielded one phone call from a parent who had received the letter. Dodge said the child in question with his call had ‘fallen through the cracks’ and should not have been on the delinquency list.
Of the 445 letters mailed, with the probation department paying the postage, 127 went to parents in the North Harrison Community School Corp. compared to 315 delivered in the South Harrison Community School Corp.
Simpson said their district may have gotten fewer letters now that NHCSC has its own in-house truancy program. The 2005-06 school year was the test pilot for the program, which Donahue said he’d like to see expanded to other schools.
Just three letters were sent to parents in the Lanesville Community School Corp.
Marsha Himmelhaver, principal at Lanesville Elementary School, addressed truancy in the first school newsletter of the new year.
‘Looking strictly at the statues, a habitual truant is defined as a student who is chronically absent, by having unexcused absences … for more than 10 days in one school year,’ she said. ‘The hard part for all of us is in agreeing on what is excused and what is not.
‘Bottom line, being absent from school has a negative impact on student achievement, and when numbers of days out accumulate, we need to take notice,’ she said.
Donahue said there are several activities that students can get an excused absence for, such as attending a funeral or serving as a page at the state or national level. A doctor’s note will also get a child an excused absence, he said.
‘It is our goal to encourage you and your child to comply with all state statutes requiring attendance,’ Donahue and Day said in the letter. ‘We simply want your child to receive the education that all children deserve and need to lead a successful life.’
Himmelhaver said students are going to miss school. ‘Illness is inevitable … Things out of our control will cause us to be late,’ she said. ‘Excessive absences and times tardy are the problem because they stand in the way of learning.’
Donahue and Day asked in their letter that parents ‘correct this situation in the upcoming school year before any action must be taken.’
Donahue said, ‘We don’t want to put anybody in jail or anything. We just want children to be in school when it’s in session.’