Becca Law and truancy: Attorney fees affect the way schools handle cases

According to a state law commonly called the Becca Law, students who miss more than seven days of school in a month or 10 days in a year can be sent to a court hearing after the school files a truancy petition. There are several other steps along the way, including truancy workshops, parent conferences and calls home.

An appeals case from Bellevue has had long-reaching tentacles that has changed the way Federal Way schools deal with truancy court cases.

The case of Bellevue School District vs. E.S. (the student was a minor so only her initials were used) went to the District Court of Appeals in January 2009. During the appeal of the original truancy case, the court ruled that students require an attorney at the first stage of a truancy hearing, citing a student's due process right to legal counsel. In the past, only the student and/or parent or guardian was needed when the student appeared at the hearing.

Impact on Federal Way

In the past, students who had their first truancy hearing would meet with commissioners, Federal Way Deputy Superintendent Mark Davidson said. Commissioners are similar to judges and listen to the case set before them.

Now that students must have a defense attorney, "it really complicated the situation," Davidson said.

Before the ruling, Davidson said that the district's Becca Law coordinator, Nancy Saunders, used to go and do a good job of explaining the situation to the commissioners. Now with the attorneys, it can be a problematic and difficult process for outsiders to understand.

This has led to decline in the number of cases Federal Way schools send to the court.

The attorney requirement has also caused problems for parents.

Davidson said it was his understanding that King County was bearing the costs for the attorneys and having students use public defenders, where there is a sliding scale or free representation. However, that wasn't the situation that Dianne Zoro said she encountered.

Zoro's ninth-grade daughter began having troubles last year at Totem Middle School. She received a lot of support from the school, and her daughter made it through eighth grade. Then, when Zoro's daughter started ninth grade at Thomas Jefferson High School, the trouble really began. Her daughter made it to the first day of school, then only attended one other day of school from September to Nov. 16, 2009.

Zoro received automated calls from the school, letting her know her daughter had missed class, she said. Zoro talked to her daughter's counselor and the TJHS Becca Law officer. Eventually in the beginning of November, the school filed a truancy petition.

At that time, Zoro decided to enroll her daughter at a different school. They had recently moved into the Todd Beamer High School area, and she enrolled her daughter there. She spoke with school officials, including her daughter's principal, and said she had a good initial meeting.

The truancy petition led to a workshop where her daughter signed a contract to attend school. At Todd Beamer, her attendance is better. However, Zoro said she still misses more days than she attends.

Zoro again began calling the district, this time to find out the next step in the court process. Zoro said she was told that the petition had expired and the school district was not going to renew it due to the cost of attorneys. Zoro said she was told that the public defender's office was now requiring parents to pay the cost of the child's public defender for the process, which runs about $800 to $900.

"I have a lot of frustration right now. I realize a lot of it falls on my daughter, but I feel like I have tried many different avenues and I am getting nowhere," Zoro said. "I am not faulting anyone. It's the entire system. Something needs to change."

Going to court

Federal Way School District often opts not to go to court.

From the district's standpoint, going to court has always been a last resort, Davidson said.

"There are many, many interventions that occur first," he said.

The district already goes the extra mile, even determining if excused absences are correct, he said. Excused absences are those that have been approved by parents.

For the district, the communication steps are what they have found to be the most effective, including a workshop-like intervention before any hearings take place.

Davidson lauds the communication in these workshops as a great educational practice that should continue even if the Becca Law were to go away, he said.

Becca Law has made a difference for the Federal Way School District, bringing down the number of unexcused absences. The intent of the law — bringing about an increased communication — was successful. The number of court cases had gone up until the Bellevue vs. E.S. case changed the landscape again, Davidson said.

"It is forcing everyone to say that the thing that is going to make a difference is to find alternatives, not to worry so much about fighting it out in a court setting," he added.

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