Skipping or School Avoidance? How Must a School Respond to a Special Education Student’s Excessive Absences

When is a school responsible for a special education student’s excessive absences? According to a recent Michigan special education due process case handled by Thrun Law Firm, it depends on whether the cause of the student’s absences is within the school’s control. M.R. v Montrose Community Schools, Case No. DP-22-0098 (June 29, 2023).

When a student is excessively absent from school, it starts the school’s truancy process. If the student receives special education services, an additional level of scrutiny is required to determine if the excessive absences are linked to the student’s disability or if the student requires additional supports to attend school and receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

In Montrose, a parent asserted that the school district committed various IDEA violations because of the school’s alleged failure to address the student’s excessive absences. The school established at hearing that the reasons for the student’s absences included the student: was too tired; did not take prescribed sleep medication because of side effects; used marijuana daily which made the student sleepy and disengaged; and had “a lot going on at home.” Consequently, the absences were not caused by or linked to the student’s disability.

The school also proved at hearing that school personnel made every effort to get the student to school, including: regular contacts by school personnel with the student and parent; attendance goals included in the student’s IEP; a detailed schedule for the student to follow when he was virtual; strategies to encourage attendance and engagement; access to after-school tutoring; visiting the student’s house to check in and offer transportation; and working with the truancy officer assigned to monitor the student’s attendance. In addition to school personnel’s efforts to get the student to come to and stay at school, school personnel also regularly revised the student’s IEPs and conducted appropriate and timely evaluations.

The administrative law judge decided that if a special education student’s truancy is the result of factors outside of the school’s control, such as in this case, the student’s non-attendance may be a defense to a denial-of-FAPE claim. The parent failed to prove that the student’s excessive absences arose from his disabilities, or that the school could have remedied the absences by anything in its control, such as content, methodology, or delivery of specially designed instruction.

If your school encounters a truancy situation with a special education student, ensure that school personnel document their efforts to get the student to attend school and abide by the IDEA in all other respects. If you need assistance addressing the situation, contact your Thrun special education attorney.