Gov. Bill Richardson signed into law recently a measure designed to curtail truancy on the part of New Mexico students. Tucumcari High School Assistant Principal , Rex Maddaford, who oversees attendance at the high school, said it was about time.
“We have had a real problem with unexcused absences here at the school,” said Maddaford. “The new law will take away driving privileges from habitual truants.”
The new law defines a habitual truant as a student who has ten or more unexcused absences in a school year. A habitual truant could lose his or her driving privileges for 90 days, and up to one year for subsequent infractions.
Lateresa Brake, Maddaford’s assistant, said unexcused absences fall into two categories.
“Sometimes the student is absent without a parent’s knowledge,” said Brake. “Other times, the parent knows that the student is absent, even though there is no good excuse for the absence.”
Brake and Maddaford check absences to see if students are being truthful. Maddaford said it really puzzles him as to why some parents think they can keep their students out of school for no good reason.
“Some parents think they are above the law,” said Maddaford. “Hopefully this new law will show them that they and their children will be held accountable.”
In fact, parents may be subject to jail time if their children are found to be habitual truants. Second convictions would be punishable by up to $500 in fines and up to six months in jail. Even parents of elementary and middle school students are subject to the new law. In a recent 20-day period, there were 284 absences at Tucumcari High School. Maddaford called many of the homes of absent students and found what he felt was a disturbing trend.
“Based on what I found out, I would say a good number of those absences were unexcused,” said Maddaford. “People will argue about how enforceable this new law will be, but I think the main thing is that it will make parents aware that the government is beginning to take truancy seriously.”
Any absence after three absences is considered “unexcused” if it is not accompanied by a doctor’s note.
Maddaford said he envisions a day when Tucumcari will have a truant officer.
“With growing awareness, this community might one day take truancy seriously and hire a truant officer. We could turn this thing around very quickly.”