New school absence policy to affect special-needs students the most

May 25, 2010

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Issaquah School District officials have made changes to the attendance policy relating to excused and unexcused absences that will impact families who plan tutoring or regularly scheduled appointments for their children during the school day.

“We want our kids at school,” said Marilyn Holm, director of special education. “We are pleased to have our parents work with us. If there are special circumstances, we will consider those on an individual basis.”

School officials sent a letter to parents of children registered in the district’s special-needs programs May 21 explaining the changes, since it will predominately affect them.

The changes will be in place at the beginning of the school year to allow families to make alternate arrangements or get additional prescriptions before then.

Children with special needs often have many prescribed medical appointments that are covered by the excused absences category, Holm said.

But in recent years, district officials said they have noticed an increase in appointments during the school day that aren’t medically necessary or prescribed.

“We’ve always had many but there just seems to be more and more, mainly in special education, but in other areas as well,” Holm said. “Parents are pulling their children out of school for occupational therapy or physical therapy, vision therapy, counseling and even tutoring.”

That’s problematic because district officials are obligated to report excused and unexcused absences and truancies to the state, said Sara Niegowski, district communications director.

“It is the law for children to be in school,” she said. “We believe actually being present in school is the No. 1 factor to being successful in school.”

The problem hasn’t been with medically necessary appointments since the school’s faculty knows about them ahead of time through the student’s Individualized Education Plan, Holm said.

Those plans are required by law and allow schools, doctors and parents to work together to advance the education and quality of life for a child with special needs.

School officials meet similarly to help accommodate students who have been in severe accidents or have illnesses.

The problem has become the amount of appointments that aren’t prescribed.

In some cases, parents have scheduled their children, both special needs and regular students, to be out of school for a half-day every week, because it’s easier to make appointments during the day, Niegowski said. The appointments range from supplemental tutoring to optional therapies.

Some families not only take children with special needs out of class, but also pull children in regular classrooms out since it’s easier not to come back to school.

For all students, missing class time means falling behind on a lesson, putting them at a disadvantage to their peers. School officials also question whether having students in school wouldn’t negate the necessity of having a tutor.

“We do understand that as a family you may make decisions which will allow your child to access important community opportunities,” Holm wrote in her letter. “However, having your student in school full time is a high priority for us.”

If nonmedical appointments can’t be changed to outside the hours of the school day, then parents should contact district officials to schedule a meeting to discuss new arrangements.

Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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One Response to “New school absence policy to affect special-needs students the most”

  1. Rhonda Browning on May 26th, 2010 4:28 pm

    Ok, first of all, pulling a child out of school for therapy should not be counted as an absence. Therapy is something the child needs in order to participate fully in the school program. Life skills are closely related to academic skills for special needs students and should be for all students. If the school based therapist could do the amount and type of therapy the child needed at school, he would not be considered absent during the time he was with the therapist, but there are many restrictions on what they are allowed to do.

    First, you put the child’s therapy in his or her IEP. State that the student will attend therapy during his school day giving an estimate of the length of time the student will not be in the classroom. This can be easily changed with an Interim IEP meeting, or you can add a phrase, such as “and other times as determined by the ——-therapist. If the child is in inclusion classes, the school is responsible for catching the child up on what he misses while at therapy (which could include tutoring especially if he is not getting professionally delivered special education services at school). If he is in classes designed to be his Least Restrictive Environment (Resource or self contained) a certified special educator will make the necessary instructional changes.

    The student is counted as PRESENT because he is where he is supposed to be during school hours. I had several students for whom this was the arrangement and it worked very well.

    Physician appointments, because of their random nature should always count as an EXCUSED ABSENCE and the parents given maximum leeway with the school responsible for the student getting their work done. This is called an ACCOMMODATION under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which does not allow a student to be penalized for being absent for medically related reasons. It is not difficult to give a child with a disability, even a temporary one, with a 504 Plan.

    In addition, the wheelchair man will also come to the school and fit the child for new wheelchairs or other orthotics during the day. This is beneficial for both the child and the teacher who can make suggestions as to positioning and accessories. Often, the school PT or OT can come at the same time as the wheelchair man and the parent can attend as well. The wheelchair man and the special education teacher can work together to ensure that the student has the best possible access to the equipment.

    This comes from a special educator with an M.Ed in Severe/Multiple Disabilities and close to 30 years of experience. Those who work with special needs students need to know how to adapt and use the school system regulations to the needs of the students and use Special Education Law to do so. If it comes down to a confrontation, a simple statement, “It’s in his IEP” works every time. The IEP is a legal document that stands up in court and takes precedency over school or system rules and policies.

    Unfortunately, taking siblings out of school cannot normally be counted as an excused absence, but a good school with a quality administrator will give the parents as much leeway as possible and accommodate the parents as much as he or she is able. Parents of special needs students need substantial support and it is only right for the village that is the public school to provide it. In any case, the siblings should not be penalized for their absence. It is not their responsibility to decide when they come to school except possibly in high school. Even then, that responsibility is limited because most high school students are still under the control of their parents.

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