The Arkansas state legislature passed Act 1223 of 2011 to deter excessive student absences by placing a limit on the total number allowed, but the new law has caused problems for students with chronic medical conditions and their parents.

The Arkansas state legislature passed Act 1223 of 2011 to deter excessive student absences by placing a limit on the total number allowed, but the new law has caused problems for students with chronic medical conditions and their parents.

Pine Bluff resident Tonya Moore’s son Montel Moore is an eighth grader at Watson Chapel Junior High School who has several chronic medical conditions that have caused him to miss school frequently and in the process run afoul of the district’s new Act 1223-compliant attendance policy.

The provisions of Act 1223 went into effect at the start of the 2011-2012 school year.

Moore explained that it was her understanding that her son should have been exempt from the provisions of the new attendance policy because of his medical issues.

Her son’s illnesses include diabetes, chronic asthma, gout, hypertension, sleep apnea and high blood pressure.

“And because of that I have to take him to a lot of doctor’s visits and he takes several dozen different medications,” Moore said as she displayed a five page list of the medications taken by her son in a three month period this year.

Act 1223

Act 1223 states that a local school district’s attendance policy must do several things, including setting the specific number of absences permitted per semester. The Watson Chapel district set its maximum number of allowable absences at 10.

Under Act 1223 for the purpose of attendance, the old distinction between an excused versus an unexcused absence is removed, meaning that absent special considerations it does not matter whether the absence is legitimate in the eyes of the district or not when it comes to keeping track of how many days any given student has missed.

Under Act 1223 a school district must also allow a student or the student’s parent or guardian to petition the school or the district administration for additional absences in the time that exists before the maximum number of absences are accumulated.

Moore claims that the Watson Chapel district did not let her know her son was in danger of exceeding the maximum number of allowed absences until after the maximum number had already been accumulated by Montel.

A letter dated Sept. 21 from junior high Principal Henry Webb to Moore notified her that her son had accumulated 10 excused absences, the maximum number allowed by the school district.

When students reach the maximum number of allowed days absent, the principal is required to report the student to the court system.

On Sept. 29, Webb referred Montel Moore to the juvenile division of the 11th Judicial District-West of the Sixth Division of the Jefferson County Circuit Court, for being habitually absent from school, in a signed and notarized Family in Need of Services petition.

At a court hearing on Nov. 7, Judge Earnest E. Brown Jr. ordered that Montel attend school daily and provide documentation for all missed school.

Under Act 1223 a school district must also allow exceptions to the attendance policy as necessary to satisfy federal programs that protect the rights of students with disabilities and other special needs.

Moore said that she has attempted to follow the procedures necessary to allow Montel to be instructed from home, including having an “Application for Homebound Instruction” filled out and signed by Montel’s physician, Dr. Martha Flowers of Pine Bluff.

The application, dated Oct. 13, indicates that in the opinion of Flowers, Montel is in need of between three and nine months of homebound instruction because he must make frequent visits to his doctors that add to his missed time from school; he must take a number of medications throughout the school day; and he must make frequent visits to the restroom due to side effects from the medicine.

Moore said that she presented the application to the judge at a Dec. 5 review hearing but that the judge refused to accept it.

Moore sent a letter to Webb dated Oct. 13 asking that her son be exempted from the 10 day absence limit under Act 1223 because Montel has medical conditions that require frequent doctor visits during school hours.

Webb sent the letter back with a handwritten note at the bottom stating that the school would need a note from Montel’s doctor to document his medical conditions.

“Montel is not being allowed to visit the nurse at school and he needs to be able to go see the nurse in order to take his medicine,” Moore said. “I was told by the school district that as long as Montel had notes from his doctor to explain his absences he would be OK, but the principal isn’t accepting them.”

At a Dec. 15 court hearing, Brown acknowledged that all of Montel’s absences to that point were justified for medical reasons, according to Moore.

The next court date for Moore and her son is Feb. 27.

Superintendent’s view

Watson Chapel Superintendent Danny Hazelwood said that Moore has so far not provided the district with the documentation it needs to certify that Montel is in need of home based instruction.

“The problem is that we don’t have concrete documentation from the doctor that the student should be served at home,” Hazelwood said. “There is nothing that she has provided that says the student cannot attend school in order to be served. If a doctor prescribes it then we will provide that care.”

“We want to serve the kids but we must do it by the law and in this case we don’t have documentation that says it has to be done. Unless it says something different we expect the student to attend school.”

“There are always extenuating circumstances out there,” said Hazelwood. “Chronic illnesses are sometimes hard to define and we have to have flexibility for these kinds of issues. We also have to have teeth in our absentee policies as well.”

“Our policy says that after 10 days of absences there have to be extenuating circumstances,” Hazelwood said. “If we don’t know why a student is absent then we have to file a FINS petition. We try to avoid that if possible. We send out a letter after so many days to let the parents know that their child is in danger of losing credit.”