Devin Whitfield began elementary school like many other students: eager to go to class, aided by a special education program for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
By third grade, he was violently vomiting at the prospect of attending school.
The 8-year-old’s anxiety arose in spring 2013 and persisted through the next academic year. His mother, Kelly Shifflett, said she once rushed him to the doctor’s office before school because the boy hyperventilated and complained of chest pains.
Tori, his 11-year-old sister, faced another problem: when she was taken out of Spring Ridge Elementary School’s chorus for poor attendance, she lost motivation to go to school at all.
Devin was unlawfully absent from school for 51 days, nearly 29 percent, of the last school year. Tori was unlawfully gone for 40 days, almost a quarter of the year. Respectively, the two logged 65.5 and 53.5 total absences in 2013-2014. Shifflett said most of those were sick days or times she couldn’t persuade her daughter to go to school.
While Shifflett’s household is an extreme case, absence has long been an issue for Frederick County Public Schools.
One in 12 county students was absent 20 or more days, excused or not, last school year, according to an analysis of absentee data by The Frederick News-Post. At the same time, 220 habitual truants were unlawfully absent for more than one-fifth of their scheduled time in school.
“Some of the cases are really heartbreaking, and they really do want to be educated,” said Kathy Campagnoli, principal of Frederick High School. “They really want to be here, but it just becomes impossible.”
Despite a growing list of reasons why students skip class, the county’s attendance problems are declining, thanks in part to greater effort by the school system to combat them. The News-Post found that:
• Habitual truancy declined to .54 percent in 2013-2014 from the 2012-2013 total of .64 percent.
• The number of chronically absent students decreased by more than 9 percent from 2013 to 2014, as 330 fewer students logged at least 20 absences.
• Middle and high school students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals, a common indication of poverty, have an absence rate around three times that of their peers.
• In fiscal 2013, the highest number of absence-related criminal charges were filed in the statewide District Court of Maryland system since at least fiscal 2007.
On June 30, Frederick County Public Schools pupil personnel worker Jim Corley filed two charges against Shifflett for failing to send the children to school. Shifflett is one of three county parents in the past three months to receive criminal charges as a result of her children’s habitual truancy.
“I never denied that they had a lot of absences,” Shifflett said. “I know they did.”
But she believes the school fell short of accommodating two pupils who had a tumultuous home life and little support in the classroom.
Shifflett, of Frederick, alleges that most of the information in the charging documents is fraudulent. School staff made it more difficult for her children to attend by taking away incentives like recess and electives, she said. Devin’s special education needs further complicated matters.
“I wanted what was best for my kids and I felt they weren’t getting it,” Shifflett said. “The school let me down.”
Habitual truants accounted for 0.54 percent of county students last school year, a decline from .64 percent in 2012-13 and a sign of progress. It was the county’s first year with a reduced percentage of habitual truants since at least 2011, according to state data.
Gov. Thomas Johnson, Frederick, Tuscarora, Linganore and Walkersville high schools were the top five traditional programs with habitual truancy. TJ led the list at 27 students; all five had more than 10 habitual truants.
A sixth-grader at Crestwood Middle School logged 137 unexcused absences in 2013-2014, the county’s most, according to a July 10 school system report. A ninth-grader missed about 80 percent of his time at Tuscarora High School.
“It can be very challenging for teachers because if you have a lot of students out, you have to reteach concepts,” Campagnoli said. “We are focusing on the mindset that you teach kids how to persevere.”
Campagnoli said the county is making small gains, emphasizing working with families to encourage children to attend.
“All the schools are struggling with it and there’s no one answer,” she said. “Every student is different and every situation is different.”
School system officials see habitual truancy as a small piece of a broader issue: chronic absence. About 8 percent of Frederick County’s students logged 20 or more absences last school year, excused or not.
“There are kids we’ve literally picked up and brought to school because their parents didn’t know Johnny didn’t come,” Campagnoli said.
Kathy Hartsock, director of student services, said the school system began looking at absence problems more closely in 2012 after a Johns Hopkins University study argued that officials focus on average daily attendance but not the cases of those who don’t show up.
Schools now do a better job of routinely discussing absence data and identifying underlying issues, Hartsock said. Student support teams in each building meet weekly to discuss individual cases and how to best accommodate children.
Pushing attendance is especially important at the elementary level because learning habits form between preschool and third grade, Hartsock said. As early education grows more demanding, it becomes more vital that the youngest children come to class.
Shifflett believes Devin, who may be promoted to fourth grade this fall, is learning at grade level despite spotty attendance. She worries more about Tori as she enters sixth grade, but said the children are using workbooks and summer school to keep up.
Along with academic progress, Hartsock said there are social and developmental benefits to good attendance in elementary school.
“It’s not only a matter of ABCs and writing your name and 1-2-3s,” she said. “Every absence counts.”
Mental health issues. Bullying. Illness. Catching up on homework or studying for a test. Vacation. Jobs. Lack of stable housing. Parental apathy. Burnout. The list of reasons behind absences continues to grow.
Cindy Glass, another of nine county pupil personnel workers, has seen more cases of anxiety like Devin’s, whether as a phobia of the classroom or instability from problems at home.
“I think a lot of it has to do with mental health issues that are preventing kids from coming to school, and we have a real deficit in the licensed professionals able to provide for these students,” she said.
Corley said parents often excuse absences when they shouldn’t. Parents keep a child home during extended illnesses, but lack an official note because the child never saw a doctor. They also take liberties with vacation time; while up to five days are allowed for vacations during the school year, Corley said those compound with inevitable sick days and “creep up” to chronic absenteeism.
Hosting a special education program like Challenges, for autistic children; Learning for Life, for those with developmental and cognitive disabilities; or Pyramid, for students with special emotional or behavioral needs, can increase a school’s absentee rate, according to TJ High Principal Jet Reid. He said students with severe disabilities are more likely to stay home to accommodate their personal needs than general education students.
Poverty also plays a significant role in a student’s attendance record. High school students with free or reduced-price meals had an absence rate of 29.1 percent in 2013, about three times that of non-FARM students; middle schoolers showed a similar gap.
Poverty may account for a racial disparity in the data; Hispanic students showed the highest percentages of chronic absence in elementary and high schools. Hispanic children often work to help support their families, Hartsock said, and holding down a job prevents them from being in school on a regular basis.
The issue has snowballed in recent years of economic turmoil, Corley said. Students sometimes have to be responsible for themselves or siblings in the morning.
“You have a lot of families now where both parents work,” he said. “They leave for work and the kid decides whether they’re going to get on the bus or not ... as the kid gets older, it’s tougher.”
Cases of “willful disobedience” become more prevalent in middle school: students don’t want to attend class and parents feel powerless to set rules. “Some kids are calling the shots as early as fourth or fifth grade,” Corley said.
Emmanuel Apea, the Frederick County Board of Education’s student member, said students often decide to skip to stay on top of their work.
Staying home “becomes better than sitting in class and reviewing for something when you could be reviewing for something else,” the Urbana High School senior said. “Sometimes a day in school isn’t always necessary.”
Apea also sees more students staying home simply because they need to.
“Sometimes it’s just pure exhaustion,” he said. “I don’t know if people play hooky as much anymore.”
Glass added that there is always a handful of families “that don’t quite understand how attendance relates to grades and academics.”
“If we can get the parents involved and help them understand they are a valuable piece of their children’s education,” she said, “that’s half the battle.”
More than 7,000 charges of failure to send a child to school were filed statewide in the District Court of Maryland system during fiscal 2013, according to court data.
Information specific to Frederick County is not available because District Court data is not broken down by county.
Those 7,025 charges do not represent the number of individuals charged that year, according to Angelita Plemmer Williams, director of communications for the Maryland Judiciary.
Glass said the number of charges filed is on a case-by-case basis, depending on a school system’s history of involvement and intervention attempts with a family. Some workers file charges per child, others file per days missed.
A first conviction on the charge comes with a penalty of up to 10 days in jail and/or a $50 fine, with up to 30 days in jail and/or $100 fine for subsequent convictions.
This is not the first time Shifflett has faced charges for failing to send her children to school. In 2009, she served more than a month in jail after failing to appear in court twice on a similar charge. She was released that March after the case was placed on the inactive docket.
“My kids did have attendance issues, but we were homeless,” Shifflett said of previous years. “I didn’t know where we were going to wake up. … I’ve fought to get them into a good home and into a good school.”
In May, Sabillasville resident April Grable and Tony Shaffer, of Thurmont, were each served with 20 charges of failing to send their children to school in the past academic year, according to Frederick County District Court records.
Their 15-year-old missed 418 full or partial school days without home school instruction since 2006, according to court documents. Their 10-year-old had missed 222 days since 2009.
Illnesses were cited for 81 of the children’s unlawful absences, court documents state, but “no medical documentation was provided to substantiate these days.” Ten doctor notes were written for the 10-year-old, 14 notes for the 15-year-old.
When school staff tried to intervene, Grable and Shaffer “failed to attend meetings, return phone calls, respond to official letters and their whereabouts has been unknown on many (occasions),” Glass stated in court documents.
“Chronic poor attendance has significantly impacted the children’s ability to learn due to large gaps of time away from instruction,” Glass wrote. She added that the students have not met state benchmarks for their school level and should be kept in the same grade next year.
Grable and Shaffer declined to comment for this story.
Whether a habitually truant student misses the classroom or not depends on the child. Elementary students “really, really want to be in school,” Glass said, while older children who haven’t created a good habit of attendance tend to be more apathetic.
The academic impact can be severe even for those who do not cross the 20 percent line. Missing school puts a child “constantly in catch-up mode, even the brightest ones,” Corley said, adding stress to an already tight schedule.
Any absences add up. If a middle or high school student is unlawfully absent for more than five days in a marking period, 10 days in a semester-long class or 20 days in a year-long class, they can fail and lose credit for that course. Elementary school students who have been absent 27 days by the end of the third quarter may not be allowed to move on to the next grade level.
The key is reminding both students and parents that each day in class is vital, Corley said, because the short-term decision to skip can have unintentional long-term consequences. While truancy is not a chargeable offense in juvenile court, truant students are most at risk of dropping out and committing crimes.
Indicators of future dropouts include absenteeism, parents who have not completed their education, and lacking a fourth-grade reading level by the end of elementary school.
Frederick County’s dropout rate was the second-lowest in Maryland at 3.84 percent in 2013, according to state data.
Students can now legally leave school at 16; that will gradually change to age 18 by July 1, 2017, per changes to Maryland law. The threshold will rise to age 17 next July and age 18 in 2017.
The school system may see more absenteeism among those who want to avoid class but cannot drop out, Hartsock said, and schools will need to assess how best to connect to students who can no longer leave at 16.
Apea thinks students should realize that the absence decisions they make in high school will create patterns for college and work life as well.
“You just have to use your judgment,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the school’s responsibility to say ‘show up.’ ... The students should be able to make their own decisions.”
But administrators hope that creating positive school cultures and growing relationships among students, parents, teachers and staff will keep kids in seats.
Strong, varied clubs and organizations keep students involved with learning and friends, Corley said. Frederick County Virtual School offers flexibility to students with chaotic home lives or who are uncomfortable in a classroom, and the Career and Technology Center helps those who may not be college-bound by giving them vocational training in trades they might otherwise drop out to pursue.
“School needs to be more flexible about how to package education for kids so it works for them and not to fit our mold,” Campagnoli said.
The human element matters, and the simple gesture of a teacher’s concerned phone call can go a long way. Glass said pupil personnel workers track their families over the summer with periodic visits, reaching out ahead of each new school year “to figure out where they are in terms of their family dynamics.”
Shifflett believes her children will love school this year. Devin is now a smiling, laughing 8-year-old who can’t wait to show up for summer school each day; his mother attributes this to a change in leadership at Spring Ridge Elementary. Tori has signed up for middle school electives such as drama.
“Hopefully, she’ll have enough stuff that she likes to do that she won’t have a problem,” Shifflett said. “She’ll go back to being Tori.”
If there’s slight improvement, Glass takes it; trying to make a difference is a marathon, not a sprint.
“There’s hope that those kids involved with interventions will return to us,” she said. “This is a fresh school year and the rules don’t change, but we’re here to support them.”