It used to be called truancy, but it’s now called school avoidance or school refusal, and it’s a growing problem for districts, according to Michael McKeon of Sullivan, Schoen, Campane & Connon.
McKeon started his Friday afternoon session of the Council of School Attorneys’ 2013 School Law Seminar on School with a quote from Woody Allen: “80 percent of life, or success, is showing up.”
Increasingly, however, students are NOT showing up – they are refusing to go to school at all. While school avoidance is not listed as a clinical disorder in DMS-IV, it could be linked to separation anxiety disorder, social phobia, or conduct disorder.
Schools need to get involved in these cases because they must comply with their state’s truancy laws, and when appropriate involve state child welfare agencies for possible parental neglect.
Parents and students often blame school avoidance cases on the district, said McKeon. Primary justifications by families include students are being bullied, feel overwhelmed by school size or academic demands, or feel inadequate or have low self-esteem.
In case of a bullying claim, he said, districts must make sure it has anti-bullying policies in place and that it is enforcing them. It must adequately publicize and enforce Title IX grievance procedures.
Anxiety issues are harder to address, said McKeon. Districts should contract for the services of a psychiatrist, behavioral psychologist, or a certified behavior analyst. A qualified therapist can formally assess the student with the parents’ consent. This person also can review student records and the case without the parents’ consent.
District should only provide homebound instruction as a stop-gap measure, and only if the parents are in agreement with implementing a school reintegration plan.
The most successful approach to reintegration involves a gradual return to school, such as a shortened day, tutoring, staggered arrival and departure times, and staggered class pass times. This approach can be used in combination with appropriate pharmacological interventions, incentives for attending school, and placement in social skills groups.