I-TEAM: Chronic absenteeism seen with Richmond County students

Published: Aug. 8, 2022 at 6:27 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-TEAM uncovered more than 11,000 students were chronically absent from schools across Augusta since the start of the pandemic.

And a thousand of those students were even referred to juvenile court to face fines or even jail time.

And behind this data is this truth: thousands of local students are falling even further behind.

I-TEAM senior investigative reporter Liz Owens made this discovery while investigating missing and homeless students in Augusta.

She found chronic absenteeism is a growing problem across the country. So, what are the rules in Richmond County for students? We took a closer look.

The I-TEAM’s recent series on the faces of homelessness in Augusta highlighted a lack of stability at home or no home at all – plus transportation struggles to even get to school – crippled a growing number of students from making it to class.

“The amount of students who are chronically absent has more than tripled across the U.S.,” said Dr. Betsy VanDeusen, literacy center director at Augusta University. She has studied the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students across the country and at home.

“Before the pandemic, one in seven students was chronically absent. That is about 8 million students (about half the population of New York). And, if you think about tripling that amount of those chronically absent, we are talking about a whole other level of not just missed instruction but wellbeing.”

The I-TEAM found that is especially true here in Augusta.

We uncovered through an eight-month I-TEAM investigation, Richmond County Schools lost track of nearly 3,000 students last school year.

“Those numbers are worse for vulnerable populations... Being displaced by homelessness there are a number of things that play into why they are not in school.”

The Richmond County School System handbook defines truant as “any child who has more than five days of unexcused absences during the academic year.”

It also outlines that any additional unexcused absence leads to:

  1. Parents are notified by certified mail
  2. A misdemeanor charge
  3. If convicted, a fine and even jail time of up to 30 days for a chronically truant juvenile
  4. Community service
  5. A combination of those penalties

That policy was unanimously approved by the school board this summer.

The I-TEAM combed through attendance records and found more than 20,000 students had five or more unexcused absences during the first two full years of the pandemic. The district referred nearly a thousand to juvenile court for truancy since COVID hit.

VanDeusen says finding those missing kids and getting them back in class by any means necessary – is critical right now. “One of my favorite quotes is you start by starting.  We start by having a plan and start doing it actively- not just on paper not just by sending emails.”

The I-TEAM asked what changes will be made this upcoming school year to track missing students. Richmond County Schools sent a statement outlining if students miss more than 10 days at the beginning of school, the case will be referred to a juvenile court liaison.

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