Truancy up at Peoria Unified high schools

40% increase could be due to change in data collection


Truancies went up in five of Peoria Unified’s eight high schools over the last two school years, with overall totals up nearly 40%.

The district recorded 323 truancies during the 2018-19 school year -- 91 more than the 232 recorded in 2017-18.

PUSD spokeswoman Kerri Staack said truancy trends can be difficult to track.

All schools follow the same policy but may have different practices in place for how they handle truancy and support students, she said.

“The method for counting truancy changed at the same time we experienced some changes at the administration level at the high schools. This may have had some impact,” she said. “It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason, as each child has a unique circumstance.

Centennial, Cactus, Ironwood, Peoria and Raymond S. Kellis high schools saw increases in truancy, defined as an unexcused absence for at least four class periods during the day. 

Ms. Staack said no data was available for Sunrise Mountain in the 2017-18 school year because a truant officer was not in place for part of the school year and cases were handled internally.

Previous to the 2017-18 school year, truancy was calculated based on the number of periods missed. For example one period missed equaled one truant day.

Since then, truant means an unexcused absence for at least four class periods during the day. Truancies are calculated based on one period missed divided by four, she said. For example a student who misses 40 periods unexcused would have equal to 10 full day-absences.

“The calculations for high school truancy were changed after it was decided that counting each period absence as a full day was not fair to students,” Ms. Staack said.

“Therefore, the method changed, and we started counting four periods as a one-day absence.”

Joanna Heilbrunn, co-director of the National Center for School Engagement, said change in data collection can cause a shift in truancy statistics.

A classic example of this is that the first year an administration puts emphasis on improving attendance, the teacher that has not been taking attendance suddenly starts taking attendance and absences go up, she said.

It could be a data collection issue as opposed to a change in behavior, she said.

“Any change in policy indicates that they are thinking about attendance and truancy and there might be greater pressure on teachers to take better attendance,” she said.

“Overall, school attendance is improving because schools are paying attention. But it is an ongoing battle.”

There are exceptions, but a child between the ages of six and 16 failing to attend school during the hours school is in session is considered truant, according to Arizona state law. Parents and guardians are cited for their children’s truancy and are responsible for ensuring they attend school.

Ms. Staack said unexcused absences for at least five school days within a school year constitutes habitual truancy, and the superintendent will establish procedures to identify and deal with unexcused absences, beginning with notification of parents.

Continued violation may lead to discipline of the child and/or referral of the parent to a court of competent jurisdiction.

A truancy officer is employed by the district and meets with students who habitually miss school.

High schools also have student resource officers, or on-campus police officers, who have a number of duties that include working with school administrators and parents to identify students who exhibit high truancy rates.

Peoria police spokesman Brandon Sheffert said SROs only get involved after a significant amount of attempts by the school district truancy officer to rectify the problem.

The SROs will get involved in cases when students miss more than 20 days, he said.

“Obviously, the goal is to find out why the students are missing school, so the SROs will also work with the students to identify any root cause, for example, maybe a family illness, transportation issues and what not,” he said.

Truancy is frequently the result of deep-seated problems with substance abuse, physical abuse, mental and physical illness, or poverty serious enough to impair a child’s ability to attend school regularly, according to the National Center for School Engagement.

Ms. Heilbrunn said if children on an individual level are facing challenges in life, it can show up in the form of truancy, and lower income kids are more likely to face those challenges.

The top 1% of the population has nearly 40% of the nation’s wealth, up from 34% in 2007, according to a 2017 survey from the Federal Reserve. Conversely, the bottom 90% has only about 23% of the nation’s total wealth, down from 29% in 2007, the survey said.

Ms. Heilbrunn said a seemingly simple issue of missing the bus can be a huge obstacle for a family of lower income that may not have a car.

The income gap has become an issue in terms of truancy, she said.

“Kids want to do well in school and parents want their kids to do well in school. There is always a reason when you dig deeper into it. It may not be obvious, but it is much more difficult when you have a lower income,” she said.

“If you look at the differences in income, things have gotten worse. If you don’t have health insurance, families are less likely to get care when they are sick. So when one family member gets the flu, the whole family gets the flu. Mental health has also become a big issue and many don’t have insurance. All these things are so much harder for lower income families.”