Committee looks to solve absentee, truancy woes

RIVERTON — “Disconnects” among the school absenteeism and truancy laws in the state are being addressed in a bill being drafted by Wyoming’s Joint Education Committee. 

Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, is a committee member. 

The effort represents the “first step” in the process of decreasing absenteeism statewide –– and specifically among minority and at-risk students, Larsen said during a JEC meeting last month.

He co-chairs the legislative Select Committee on Tribal Relations, which has spent years studying the issue of absenteeism in the state due to the “disproportionate amount of absenteeism that takes place on the reservation with our Native American kids,” Larsen said. 

“I mean, in Fremont County we have some schools that are graduating less than 25 percent of the kids,” Larsen said. “If that were happening, perhaps, in other districts, there would be more of a fire.” 

He was referring to Fremont County School District 38 in Arapahoe, which showed a graduation rate of about 26 percent for the 2019-2020 school year, according to the Wyoming Department of Education.

The other public schools on the Wind River Indian Reservation also showed low graduation rates, of about 36 percent at FCSD 21 in Fort Washakie and almost 54 percent at FCSD 14 in Ethete. 

The JEC has been tasked with studying “differential educational outcomes by race and ethnicity,” Wyoming Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, pointed out, noting that “school attendance is absolutely correlated with success. If populations of students aren’t attending school, they’re not going to be as successful as those that do,” she said. 

The tribal relations committee began meeting with local stakeholders several years ago to discuss the absenteeism issue, Larsen said, but it was difficult to make progress due to several “holes” in state statute. 

For starters, he said, the state should include the tribal court system – not just district court – in any language addressing absenteeism, since civil processes that take place on the Wind River Indian Reservation fall under the the tribal law and order code. 

Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, who cochairs the tribal relations committee with Larsen and sits on the JEC, said the state also needs to more clearly outline the actions that must be taken when a habitually truant child is Native American. 

She referred to the Indian Child Welfare Act, which sets minimum standards for the handling of child abuse, neglect, and adoption cases involving Native American children, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

Ellis said ICWA, passed in 1978, serves as an acknowledgement from the federal government that “for much of the 50s and 60s there was an assumption in our country that it was better to place Indian children in white families.” 

“We saw a lot of disruption at the tribal level, of children being forcibly migrated away from their culture,” the Navajo Nation member said. “So this (bill) acknowledges the importance of that federal statute and provides some clarity, because we did hear that in the Fremont County school districts: ‘What do I do if the child is Native? What am I supposed to do?’ By passing this we’re trying to make it clearer so we can be respectful of that federal law.” 

An item that might draw “a little bit more controversy,” Ellis said, involves the penalty for guardians referred for prosecution for child neglect. 

Currently, Ellis said, guardians whose children are habitually truant due to neglect may be fined up to $25 – an amount that some Fremont County educators called “a mockery.” 

“The amount (is) too low,” Ellis said. 

Defendants also may be sentenced to 10 days in prison, but Ellis said stakeholders all agreed that guardian incarceration is unlikely to help students get to school. 

The JEC bill’s other proposed changes to Wyoming’s absenteeism rules would create more of a “distinction” between truancy that results from student misbehavior, and truancy that is a result of neglect by the guardian, Ellis said. 

Those separate definitions could be used to clarify the relationship between Wyoming’s Child Protection Act and Child in Need of Supervision rules, she said, recommending several “conforming amendments” that would ensure all applicable state laws are “cross-referenced.”

State statute currently requires school boards to appoint attendance officers who must report and investigate the causes of any unexcused absences, legislative staff said during the JEC meeting, and if a student logs multiple unexcused absences, the attendance officer is supposed to file a “complaint against the child, parent or guardian” for violation of compulsory attendance laws. The prosecuting attorney is then supposed to initiate “proceedings in the interest of the child under the Juvenile Justice Act,” according to state statute, which Larsen said references the JJA’s “criminal portion for juveniles.” 

However, because such proceedings “would imply that the child has committed a crime,” Larsen said some prosecutors instead opt to issue a Child in Need of Supervision petition or pursue educational neglect charges against the guardians involved.