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How Children with School Refusal Is Not Truancy

Although multiple calls were made to the district to ask for help, nothing was done. Days, weeks, and months eventually passed until routine visits by the police became a weekly appointment in the family’s home; a fear tactic implemented by the school rather than addressing the underlying disabilities.

“The police are at my door, my neighbors are staring, I am mortified.” “What exactly do you mean the police are at your door?” We tried to calm our client down on the other end of the line. “They said I need to send her to school. The district knows why she isn’t in class. I tell them every single day, no one is helping.”

In fact, her daughter had undiagnosed social and emotional disabilities presenting in physiological signs of anxiety, withdrawal, depression and as relevant to our topic of discussion, school refusal. Listening to the cops on the other end of the line, it was obvious they saw no signs of neglect. Their solution? Call the school district again, they will be more than happy to help.

In this client’s case, her adopted daughter, who had grown up in the foster care system, was tortured at the thought of attending school. After years of limited academic support, she felt “stupid,” causing her to shut down in class and avoid classmates. While the school was aware of her low literacy levels, they failed to consider that she was also developing social and emotional disabilities impacting her ability to access her education. Faced with immense anxiety about the reality of her day, she would simply refuse to go to school in the mornings.

Although multiple calls were made to the district to ask for help, nothing was done. Days, weeks, and months eventually passed until routine visits by the police became a weekly appointment in the family’s home; a fear tactic implemented by the school rather than addressing the underlying disabilities. At no point did the school inform the parent about her right to request additional services to address the school-related anxiety, nor was she informed that “emotional disturbance” was actually one of the thirteen categories protecting students under the applicable federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

With the help of counsel, this client was able to ensure her daughter received at home instruction and counseling until she was in a place to return to campus. Most importantly, the visits from the police stopped. Unfortunately, more than half of a school year was lost at this point. This case highlights an important distinction that must be made but is routinely overlooked for special needs students. School refusal is not truancy and should not be treated as such.

Under the California Education Code (EC Section 48260), children are truant if any of the following types of unexcused absence takes place.

absent for 3 full days in a single school year,

tardy 3 times in a year,

absent 3 times for more than 30 minutes, or

any combination of the above

If the school does not excuse an absence at the parent’s word, it is unexcused and a maximum of three full days would deem the student “truant.” Deeming a student truant carries consequences including but not limited to, the student’s extracurricular privileges being revoked, court mandated counseling, revocation of the student’s driving privileges, criminal action against the parents, and in some cases, placing the child on juvenile probation. It goes without saying that often these solutions will fail to ever address the underlying disabilities which may be present.

School Refusal
Parents and educators should keep an eye out for school refusal behaviors that might be manifesting an underlying disability. For students suffering from school refusal, their school-related distress becomes so severe in the mornings they may beg not to go to school, have trouble sleeping on school nights, or
complain about feeling sick so they can stay home. This is especially true, for example, for children who are on the autism spectrum and neurologically struggle with factors involved in changes in the classroom, new teachers, unpredictable downtime during recess, or noisy locker rooms, etc. In such instances, these children may be developing a new school-related anxiety disability requiring immediate educational attention.

Regrettably, there has been an increase in school refusal behaviors following the chaos students faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to a variety of factors such as social isolation, lack of academic support, etc., many students fell into depressive states of emotional stasis which have been left untreated. Currently, students across the state are suffering with school-related depression and anxiety that is affecting their academic success.

Protections for Students Refusing School
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, educators are responsible for providing a free and appropriate education to special needs students, regardless of whether those students refuse to attend school. Specifically, districts are required to determine whether a student’s absences are the
result of a social, emotional, or cognitive learning disability or whether the absences stem from unrelated matters and violate compulsory attendance requirements. For any parent, especially parents of special needs students who are often entrenched in paperwork and meetings, a letter threatening
significant punitive consequences can be incredibly frightening. Far too often, these letters are mailed out without schools entertaining the possibility a student may need additional special education assistance to feel safe and supported at school. This demonstrates a lack of social awareness which must be addressed by our tax-funded educators.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandates every school district to identify, locate, and evaluate all children (aged birth through 21) who may have suspected disabilities. This mandate, Sec. 300.111 referred to as “Child Find,” includes all children who are suspected of having a disability, even
if they are otherwise doing fine in classes and advancing from grade to grade. Once educators become aware that a student may be in need of special education services, the district must employ a practical method to conduct necessary evaluations at no cost to the parents. The Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act also mandates that schools inform parents about their rights to request special education assessments, a right that is far too often bypassed.

Unfortunately, for many students, especially those suffering from hidden social and emotional disabilities, these protections are not automatically enforced. Letters are sent, police are called, and families face punitive consequences for matters which should be handled strictly by qualified professionals through the statutory procedures in place. If a student is absent, let’s put in the time and
effort to find out why. It is their right.

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