Becca Bill: Federal Way schools' attendance accuracy disputed

Skipping attendance taking could lead to difficulties for taking truancy petitions to court.

According to a state law commonly known as the Becca Bill, children ages 8-17 are required to attend a public school, private school or a district-approved home school program.

In addition to notifying parents, students with problematic absences are sent to a workshop and must sign a contract. At the workshop, both the students and the parents are reminded of the law that states that students attend school.

The Becca Bill was enacted in the mid-1990s after 13-year-old Becca Hedman, a runaway who worked the streets as a prostitute and was murdered by one of her clients. Her father, Dennis Hedman, began working to change Washington state's juvenile laws. Part of the law states that schools must file a truancy petition with juvenile court when a child has more than seven unexcused absences in a month, or more than 10 in a year.

If the detentions, Saturday schools, suspensions and intervention meetings don't work, then the school files a petition, according to the Becca Truancy Law, which brings the case to court.

Districts can file petitions to the court, which can result in the court ordering attendance at either the current school, an alternative school, another public school, a skill center, a dropout prevention program, private school or an education center. Students not in compliance with the Becca Bill can also be referred to a community truancy board or ordered to complete a drug test. The court can also order a student to report to county detention, or order the parents to perform community service or pay a fine of up to $25 per day for each unexcused absence if the court determines that the parent or student violated the court order.

Federal Way's problem

Kimberly Frederick with the King County Prosecutor's Office said that in order to take truancy petitions filed to a hearing, they need accurate attendance records.

For accurate attendance records, the prosecutors need to have a notation for each period of the day. In a few cases, the records from the Federal Way School District have a record of absent or tardy or present for some of the periods, but not for others, where nothing is written down. This isn't to say it's a problem specifically with Federal Way. Anytime there are incomplete attendance records, the prosecutor's office would find it difficult to take to court.

"If nothing is there, we can't count it as an absence," Frederick said. "Some teachers maybe only mark students who are present or aren't present. All records have a key and if there is no notation but a key, then it's very difficult."

Frederick said it wouldn't take much to fix the problem. Any school district facing this problem would need to implement a consistent process for all the schools, for all classes, districtwide.

Federal Way students who are having truancy issues can still be dealt with in other methods. They can still be sent into workshops, and Frederick said a lot of cases are resolved that way. Schools can still file, of course, but it may just depend if the case meets the threshold.

The schools do file numerous petitions. Last school year, Federal Way High School filed around 100 petitions with the prosecutor's office, according to district records.

District response

School district spokeswoman Diane Turner said that with the district's ConnectEd program, all teachers have to enter attendance the same way. Those attendance calls go out daily and are maintained in the system.

"People love our ConnectEd system," Turner said. "Next year we will be able to text message people for tardies or absences. We've really stepped up in terms of being able to notify parents."

Turner said the school district is currently about 90 percent accurate with contact numbers for parents or guardians, which is high, considering the district has a 50 percent mobility rate.

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