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Chimacum School District v. R.L.P.

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2

August 20, 2019

CHIMACUM SCHOOL DISTRICT, Respondent,
v.
R.L.P., student, C.P., mother, Appellant.

          Maxa, C.J.

         RLP appeals the juvenile court's truancy order entered after RLP accumulated several unexcused absences from elementary school during the 2016-2017 school year. He claims that the Chimacum School District (the District) failed to take the data-informed steps required under former RCW 28A.225.020 (2016) to eliminate or reduce RLP's absences before the District filed the truancy petition.

         RLP's appeal is moot because the juvenile court subsequently dismissed the truancy matter, but we address one of the appeal issues because it involves a matter of continuing and substantial public interest. We hold that the juvenile court erred in finding that the District met its obligations under former RCW 28A.225.020 because the District did not take data-informed steps to eliminate or reduce RLP's absences, including application of the Washington assessment of the risks and needs of students (WARNS), before filing the truancy petition.[1]

         FACTS

         At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, RLP was 10 years old and was a 5th grade student at Chimacum Elementary School. Starting in September 2016, RLP's family experienced homelessness for a time. RLP began to miss school regularly. Many of these absences were excused, but some were unexcused.

         On November 2, Chimacum Elementary School principal Mark Barga sent a letter to RLP's mother informing her that RLP had 15 absences and 17 tardies in the current school year and reminding her that school attendance was compulsory under chapter 28A.225 RCW.

         On November 15, Barga met with RLP, RLP's mother, and RLP's teacher to discuss his attendance problems. They discussed the fact that RLP did not like getting up in the morning to go to school, but they agreed that the school would try different things to encourage him and that his mother would try to encourage him at home as well. RLP's teacher suggested that RLP could come to school with his older brother. Because RLP seemed to like being in the school office, Barga agreed to allow RLP to spend his recess in the school office as a rest time if he came to school and completed certain assignments.

         On March 10, 2017, the District filed a truancy petition with the juvenile court, asking the court to assume jurisdiction over RLP's school attendance. The petition alleged that RLP "has had seven or more unexcused absences in the current school month, 10 unexcused absences in the current school year or has failed to comply with a more restrictive district attendance policy." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 1. The District stated that its steps to eliminate or reduce RLP's absences included "[l]etters sent, attendance phone calls made, meeting with principal, teacher offered for [RLP] to come to school on bus with older brother who is in middle school." CP at 2.

         At a fact-finding hearing on April 27, Barga testified regarding the facts recited above. RLP's attendance had not improved since the November conference. Barga testified from the attendance report that RLP had 15.5 days of excused absences, 22 days of unexcused absences, and 49 tardies. Barga apparently had not spoken with RLP's mother since the November conference or sent her any additional communication in writing.

         When asked whether the school ever took data-informed steps to reduce or eliminate RLP's absences, Barga replied, "What do you mean by that?" Report of Proceedings (RP) at 14. After defense counsel's clarification, Barga stated that "we're tracking, I'll call it a behavior, we're tracking the absences and . . . you can look at what the absent . . . rate was in November and look at what the absent rate is now and it's virtually unchanged." RP at 15. Barga testified that the school had not adjusted RLP's schedule, but that his teacher had worked hard to make modifications for RLP and had "basically individualized the program and the work for [RLP]." RP at 15. Barga also stated that there were special services available for RLP that he refused to participate in.

         RLP's mother also testified at the hearing. She stated that the conference with Barga in November was to discuss RLP's behavior at school and lack of participation, and that his attendance was only vaguely touched on. A truancy petition was discussed at the meeting, but ultimately was rejected at that time because she, Barga, and RLP's teacher thought it would be detrimental to RLP's progress in school. RLP's mother agreed that RLP's teacher had made efforts on his behalf, but she testified that the District had not spoken to her further after the November conference about any additional steps that could be taken to address RLP's continued attendance issues.

         The juvenile court entered an order finding that RLP had failed to attend school as required by chapter 28A.225 RCW and that the District had complied with its duties under former RCW 28A.225.020 to inform RLP's mother of his absences and to attempt to eliminate or reduce those absences. The court assumed jurisdiction of RLP's truancy and ordered RLP to attend school on a regular basis. RLP filed a notice of appeal regarding the truancy order.

         Subsequently, on June 27, the juvenile court dismissed the truancy matter because the 2016-2017 school year had ended and therefore the District's petition no longer was necessary. Nevertheless, RLP has continued to pursue his appeal.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Truancy Statutes - Chapter 28A.225 RCW

         Public school attendance for children between the ages of 8 and 18 is mandatory unless an exception applies. Former RCW 28A.225.010(1) (2014). In 2016, the legislature enacted significant amendments to chapter 28A.225 RCW, effective June 9, 2016.[2] Laws of 2016, ch. 205. These amendments expanded the obligations of public schools to address a student's failure to attend school, introduced the WARNS assessment as a tool to assess the risks and needs of individual students, and made community truancy boards mandatory for all school districts by the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. Former RCW 28A.225.020(1) (2016); RCW 28A.225.026.[3]

         With respect to a student who fails to attend school without justification, former RCW 28A.225.020(1) states that public schools must (1) inform the child's parent after one unexcused absence in any month, (2) schedule a conference with the parent and child for the purpose of analyzing the causes of the child's absences after two unexcused absences ...


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