Think Out Loud

How Washington tracks truant students

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
March 8, 2024 12:13 a.m.

Broadcast: Monday, March 11

In Washington, school districts are working on how they interact with truant students. The state has laws in place that allow school districts to work with kids and understand why they’re missing school so often. Rules include referring students to community engagement boards and working with juvenile court. However, district success with current policies varies widely from county to county, and some kids are falling through the cracks. Kelsey Turner has covered this issue as an investigative reporter at InvestigateWest. She joins us with details.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. School districts in Washington State are supposed to put some effort into reengaging chronically absent students. That includes things like referring students to community engagement boards and working with juvenile courts. But Kelsey Turner, an investigative reporter at InvestigateWest found that policies vary widely from district to district and that some kids are falling through the cracks. Kelsey Turner joins us now to talk about all of this. Welcome to the show.

Kelsey Turner: Thank you.

Miller: I want to start with a really shocking number in your reporting. Almost 15,000 students across Washington were involuntarily withdrawn, taken off of district roles because of non- attendance since just the fall of 2020. Are there patterns in terms of where this is most common, or the groups that are most likely to be disenrolled?

Turner: It’s hard to draw definitive conclusions from the data because practices of disenrollment vary a lot from district to district. But the trends that I saw in terms of school districts that were disenrolling kids at higher rates tended to be some smaller districts in under-resourced or rural areas, particularly those close to Indian country. And those school districts tended to have higher populations of Native and Latino students. So the data can’t show specifically that Native and Latino students are being withdrawn at higher rates, but the districts that were withdrawing kids at higher rates tended to have higher populations of those students.

Miller: You quoted a state education official, Krissy Johnson, who’s been researching this. She said that districts are not required to disenroll students who stop attending school. So why were they doing it?

Turner: Washington school districts are funded based on enrollment, so school districts basically aren’t allowed to receive funding for kids that aren’t showing up to school anymore. So if a child hasn’t shown up to school for 20 days in a row, then they’re not allowed to receive funding for those kids. And school districts had interpreted that to mean that they had to withdraw students at that 20-day mark, which Krissy Johnson made clear to me is not true. It was kind of a misunderstanding. But that’s the practice that schools had been following.

Miller: What are they required to do at that point, when that trigger is hit, of students missing 20 consecutive days of school? What does the state say districts still have to do even though they’re not getting money anymore?

Turner: School districts can’t keep receiving funding for those kids. But other than that, the kids can still stay enrolled. And separate from that are the state’s truancy laws. And the truancy laws at certain points, like if a kid hits, say, seven days of unexcused absences in a month, or something like that, then there are steps that the school is required to take to reach out to the student.

One of those is to refer them to a local community engagement board, which is just a group of local community members that are supposed to meet with students and families and come up with a plan to re-engage them in school and figure out those underlying reasons why a child isn’t coming to school. Schools are also required to refer students to juvenile court, to file a truancy petition with the court.

Miller: How often do schools actually send kids with, say, seven absences, unexcused ones, over the course of a month, to those community engagement boards?

Turner: The most recent data we have is from 2022, and that showed that less than half of schools were sending kids that had reached that threshold to community engagement boards. So it was only 45% of kids that had reached that seven unexcused absences in a month or 15 in a year. At that point, districts are required to refer them to a community engagement board, and only 45% were.

Miller: Before you wrote the article we’ve been talking about that focused on this issue of unexcused absences or truancy broadly, you wrote about a young student named Kit Nelson-Mora. Can you tell us their story?

Turner: Kit is a nonbinary Indigenous teenager who goes by they/them pronouns, who was living in Omak, Washington, which is North Central Washington in Okanogan County. And Kit has now been missing for about two years. In 2021 and into 2022, they stopped showing up to school, and the Omak School District withdrew them for non-attendance. And the district also did not follow through with the truancy laws, so Kit was not referred to a community engagement board and they were not referred to juvenile court either.

So it was one of those early warning signs that the district could have made known to Kit’s family that Kit was missing. But instead, Kit just fell through the cracks, and for that reason, and for many other reasons as well, Kit’s family didn’t know that they were missing until months later. And it took that many months for Kit’s disappearance to be reported to the police.


Miller: How do you think Kit’s story fits into the larger picture you’ve been reporting about truancy in Washington?

Turner: Washington’s truancy law was passed in 1995 with the purpose of keeping kids safe. And yet Kit’s story just exemplifies the fact that kids, despite this law being passed almost 30 years ago, are still disappearing. And these laws, in some areas of the state, just really aren’t working to keep kids safe.

Miller: This is Becca’s Bill that you’re talking about, that became law in 1995. According to your reporting, it seems to have some pretty serious unintended consequences, in terms of…even though the idea was let’s keep kids safe, it seemed to embroil them in the criminal justice system at really high numbers. What happened after that law was passed?

Turner: The Becca Bill at first really had a lot of issues. It was named after Rebecca Hedman, who was a 13-year-old girl who had run away from home and ended up being sex trafficked and was murdered in Spokane at the age of 13. The bill was passed in response to that, and to keep kids safe.

But what started happening was that the bill gave a lot of control, first of all, to parents, which would be problematic in cases where kids are in abusive homes and having that parental control is a problem. And it also ended up putting a lot of kids in jail. Kids that were being referred to juvenile court were being detained at really high rates, and Washington had the highest rates in the nation of these kids being detained for not showing up to school. That was an issue that education advocates pushed back against, and the law eventually ended up being changed in recent years so that kids can’t be detained for missing school.

Miller: What role has the pandemic played in everything that we’re talking about?

Turner: The pandemic, I think, is a really important context because a lot of kids across the nation were missing from schools at really high rates during the pandemic. Disengagement from school was really common and hundreds of thousands of kids disappeared from schools. That was true in Washington as well.

In Kit’s case, for example, the Omak School District highlighted to me that when Kit was withdrawn, it was in the context of the first time that students were coming back in person to school in 2021. And so it was really chaotic, truancy was a huge issue, a lot of kids weren’t showing up, and that contributed to Kit falling through the cracks.

Miller: In the last few years, districts got clearer guidance from state officials, from Olympia, that they have to keep kids on their rolls, even if those kids are chronically absent. Has that made a difference?

Turner:  It’s hard to tell at this point if it’s made a difference. But I can definitely say that the school districts I’ve spoken to have made those changes. It was mostly the beginning of this past school year - school districts have (some, at least) stopped automatically disenrolling kids at that 20-day mark. Instead, [they] will switch them to…they’ll call it 0% enrollment. So the child is still enrolled in school, but they’re not being counted for funding.

And so that’s a way to keep the child still connected to the school system and allow the school to continue doing outreach to the child. So hopefully, it can help kids become re- engaged a little bit easier.  But at the same time, just because a child is still enrolled in school doesn’t necessarily mean that the school knows where the kid is, or that they are engaged in any way. So it doesn’t mean that truancy is being fixed. But it seems to be progress.

Miller: Did state leaders or school-level leaders that you talked to have other ideas in terms of dealing with the root issue here, of how to re-engage these kids who, in terrifying numbers, have disengaged from school?

Turner: State education officials are making a lot of efforts to look into these larger issues and engage families that have had issues with truancy in the past and talk to them about those systemic reasons. Schools do have a good amount of resources to address some of those underlying issues, whether it be homelessness or poverty or things like that, that might be preventing a kid…say they have a full time job or they have to take care of siblings or something like that and they can’t go to school; schools have resources that they can tap into to help with that, but oftentimes, it just might not be enough.

State education officials are taking some steps to address that. There was a bill that was introduced this past legislative session to help address chronic absenteeism and put some more funding in that area. But it didn’t pass in this legislative session.

Miller: Kelsey, thanks very much.

Turner: Thank you.

Miller: Kelsey Turner is an investigative reporter at InvestigateWest.

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