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Sep 25, 201201:08 PMEducation Matters

The Big Lie: Writing the School Absence Note

Sep 25, 2012 - 01:08 PM
The Big Lie: Writing the School Absence Note

What if your Montgomery County public high school student has to miss school to attend a family event or some other activity not excused by MCPS rules? Or your teen is just not feeling well and wants to sleep through her morning classes? What do you tell the school?

You lie, of course, say several parents who have found themselves in similar situations during their children’s high school years.

That was the moral dilemma that Fig Ruggieri faced a couple years ago when her son, Eric, then a student in the math and science magnet at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School and an accomplished swimmer, needed to miss a week of school to attend an important meet in Florida.

The Ruggieris followed the lead of one of Eric’s teammates, who was told by the then-magnet coordinator that the weeklong absence wouldn’t be excused. That student was told to submit a note saying that he had visited colleges, which is excused, for a few days and then gotten sick.

When Eric returned from the meet, the Ruggieris asked a doctor friend to write a note saying that he had been sick the week he’d missed school. Fig Ruggieri says she still feels terrible about lying and the lesson it taught her son.

“That is horrible—teaching kids to lie. The bottom line is it really bothered me, this message that we were sending to our kids because we were complicit in a lie,” she said.

I’ve had this same conversation with other parents, who say they hate to lie in such situations. But they believe that MCPS policy leaves them no choice because they don’t want their high schoolers to receive an unexcused absence when they have to miss school for a family wedding, for example.

That was the recent decision of the parents of a high school sophomore that I know. After the student missed a school day to attend an out-of-state wedding, her parents wrote a note saying that she had been absent to have dental work done.

What drives this duplicity?

Parents say they’re concerned that their kids will lose course credit if they have too many unexcused absences. MCPS policy calls for high school students who miss class three times without an approved excuse to be warned of the possibility of failing and referred to a counselor. Five unlawful absences require submission of an appeal to make sure the absences were recorded correctly or an attendance intervention plan that provides a way for a student to make up missed work.

Students who don’t take either step will be in danger of failing.

Worries about whether a student will be allowed to participate in school sports is another reason to lie, parents say.

Students are told that if they aren’t in school or don’t have an approved excuse for missing class time, they can’t practice or participate in that day’s game. So if a parent thinks her student-athlete needs to sleep in after a long night of studying and miss a couple of classes on game day, what does she do?  

Lie about a doctor’s visit, says one mother, who recalls doing so numerous times when her daughter, now a college freshman, attended Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

To be fair, MCPS policy follows state rules and allows students to miss school for a host of reasons, including the following that must be presented by parents five days in advance and approved by school officials: college visits or participation in orientation programs, death in the immediate family, illness (possibly requiring a doctor’s note), illness of student’s child, court summons and work approved by the school, among others.

And the policy says that school officials can use discretion in designating whether absences are excused. But it also says that “normally, requests for family travel are not lawful absences.”

It’s the subjectivity inherent in the policy that creates uncertainty about what to do. It’s hard to know what event or activity outside the approved list would be deemed excusable—without actually posing the question to schools officials and thus making any excuse supplied by the student suspect.

Still, MCPS urges parents not to lie, but to talk to school officials when there is a question about whether an activity is excusable.  

Michael Doran, principal of Thomas S. Wootton High School, said that parents’ fear of an unexcused absence on their student’s record is unwarranted—unless that student is already in trouble for missing classes.

“If you get an unexcused absence, your child does not go to jail,” he said. “You’re allowed five unexcused absences because we know that things happen. It’s not a big deal unless your student is absent a lot.”

And he’d prefer that parents accept an unexcused absence rather than place him in the awkward position of making subjective decisions based on circumstances.

“We shouldn’t be forced as principals to keep on making decisions about excuses because, of course, we’re going to look inconsistent,” Doran said. “It shouldn’t be up to the principal to bless you.”

Fig Ruggieri knows firsthand about that inconsistency. Her son’s swim teammates at other MCPS high schools were often lawfully excused to attend meets—while she always wrote a note saying Eric had been sick—even to attend a one-day meet.

And the year following the fake weeklong illness, Eric approached Blair’s new magnet coordinator to find out again whether his attendance at the big meet would be excused. That time, Fig Ruggieri said, the coordinator decided that for an athlete of Eric’s caliber, attending an important swim meet would count as an excused absence.

That time, the Ruggieris did not have to lie.

“Either you have a policy for the county or you don’t,” Fig Ruggieri said. “It shouldn’t be based on circumstances.”

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About This Blog

Education Matters will discuss the news and issues affecting both public and private schools in Montgomery County. We want to talk about what’s happening inside—and outside—the classroom, who’s making the grade and who isn’t.

Julie Rasicot is a former newspaper reporter and managing editor who’s been writing about education for 25 years. She’s a veteran PTA and classroom volunteer who’s the mother of two girls—an eighth-grader and a fifth-grader—attending MCPS schools. None of that seems to matter, though, when she’s struggling to help her kids with their math homework.

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