Officials take aim at school truancy

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, June 5, 2011

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The Navajo Nation has had laws on the books for years requiring parents to send their children to school but reservation educators say they were ineffective because no one enforced them.

That is expected to change soon.

Navajo Nation education officials, along with tribal prosecutors, court officials, social workers and school leaders, have been meeting since fall 2009 to draft new laws that would provide penalties for parents who fail to send their children to school.

Kee Yazzie, a senior planner in the Department of Diné Education, said his agency is trying to get feedback from parents about the proposed change but - and maybe this is symptomatic of the basic problem - "We held a series of public hearings on the proposals but hardly anyone attended," he said.

In an effort to get parent input, DODE booked two hours on KTNN Radio May 25 to explain the law and take questions.

In recent years, Navajo Nation educators have expressed shock at the number of schools in this area that continually fail to make adequate yearly progress. Many teachers lay the blame for low student test scores on high rates of absenteeism.

In the Gallup-McKinley County School District, officials report that attendance problems start to crop up in the middle grades and by high school, it's not uncommon to see as many as 15 percent of the students with 20 or more unexcused absences during the year - a full month's worth of missed classes.

"You can't expect that a student will be able to keep up with his subjects when he misses that amount of school," said GMCS Superintendent Ray Arsenault.

A study by the school district revealed that among the reasons for low attendance are parents who use older children to babysit siblings who are too young for school when they can't find other babysitters.

GMCS has taken some parents to court in an effort to get them more involved in their children's school attendance, but many have argued during court proceedings that even when they make sure their child gets on the bus, as soon as it reaches the school, he or she walks off and spends the day playing hooky.

Yazzie acknowledged that absenteeism involves a number of social problems that will have to be addressed if attendance is going to improve significantly.

He added that many tribes will throw parents in jail if their children don't attend school but the new Navajo Nation law will have a number of approaches, including counseling and Peacemaker Court. Tribal educators have said the threat of jail should be the last option.

"This is a problem nationwide," said Yazzie, pointing out that practically every school district in this area is trying to come up with a solution to get students to attend classes more.

Yazzie said the plans are get the truancy bill before the Navajo Nation Council in the fall session and if it passes, the changes would take effect Jan. 1, 2012.

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