Legislators seek to tackle absenteeism in NJ public schools

Nearly 130,000 public K-12 students in New Jersey miss school at a “chronic” rate, a data point that has sent legislators on a quest for more details from schools and more cooperation with parents to explain and reduce the alarming trend.

Experts in support of a bill approved by the Assembly Education Committee recently said current data collected by the New Jersey Commissioner of Education does not even scratch the surface when it comes to the full story about chronic absenteeism. They have suggested that an approach that focuses on home life could be more helpful.

The Assembly bill would mandate that any public school with 10 percent or more chronically absent students report the information on the School Report Card. Schools would also have to develop a detailed plan about how to solve the issue.

Cynthia Rice, senior policy analyst at Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), said schools need to go beyond compliance with current School Report Card reporting requirements.

“Parents need to be a part of the solution,” Rice said. “There is no punitive measure, [schools should] just say ‘Your kids are missing so much school you have to be more intentional about how you address this.’ This is the only way we’re going to get to more kids.”

Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Skillman, asked Rice if breaking down the demographic data on absenteeism more could help paint a clearer picture. Rice added that while the ACNJ already looks at economic status, English language ability, and special needs designations, the approach should be explored further. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Westwood, highlighted students’ medical issues such as autism as a reason students are missing class.

Shari Allen, climate and culture Leader for the Hedgepeth Williams Middle School of the Arts in Trenton, attributed much of the school’s success in improving attendance rates to “intentional” programming designed to tend to students’ individual needs. The school has seen a decrease in chronic absenteeism from 54 percent to 7 percent over the past year, she said.

Several experts mentioned “intentionality” as an important trait of the bill, specifically citing parental engagement.

The bill requires that schools design corrective action plans to curb absenteeism. The plans will include, among other things, strategies for keeping parents up to speed on their children’s attendance records as well as the importance of attendance.

“If we have students who are missing a lot of days we intentionally create one-on-one meetings with the student and pull in the parents for one-on-one mentoring meetings as well as small group mentoring meetings,” Allen said. “For us it’s about looking at the individual stories, it’s not about looking at the numbers. Because if we can look at the student and the issues that student needs we are able to report them and then students buy in, they’re committed, they want to be in school.”

Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, introduced the bill (A2192) after Gov. Phil Murphy took office. Chris Christie pocket-vetoed an earlier version at the end of his term that had passed both chambers unanimously. Christie gave no reason, and because the legislative session was expiring, lawmakers had no chance to vote on what would have been their first override of a Christie veto.

Fighting the opioid crisis in schools

The education committee also has approved a bill (A542) requiring schools that teach grades nine through 12 to make opioid antidotes, like naloxone, available to school nurses and other trained employees.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that naloxone is an “opioid antagonist,” able to restore a person’s normal respiration after a heroin or prescription opioid overdose.

Approximately 1,901 people died in New Jersey in 2016 from heroin and fentanyl overdoses according to NJ Advance Media. Of the total death toll, 18 were between 16 and 19 years old, the age of many high schoolers.

The bill doesn’t limit treatment to students, however. School nurses or trained employees would be able to administer the “rescue” antidote to anyone believed to be experiencing an opioid overdose. This could include parents and family as well as school staff.

School nurses and trained employees, board of education members, charter and nonpublic school administrators, and opioid antidote prescribers all receive immunity from liability under the legislation.