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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Truant Nashua High School students can now be fined $100 a day

NASHUA – Students 16 and older could face up to a $100 fine for being severely truant, after the Board of Education on Monday unanimously approved adding the penalty to the district’s attendance policy.

Superintendent Mark Conrad proposed the change as a way to legally compel students to truancy court. The move was in response to the state Legislature drastically limiting the Child in Need of Services, of CHINS, program earlier this year. Conrad said the change took away the court’s ability to require at-risk youth to attend court if they were chronically truant.

Students would have to rack up 20 or more unexcused absences before the district could issue the court summons, according to the revised policy.

The goal is not to fine students, Conrad reiterated to board members Monday, but to use a court summons and the threat of a fine to get them back in school. Once in court, Judge Thomas Bamberger, who oversees Nashua’s truancy court, could withhold the fine if the student starts going to school or there could be community service ordered in lieu of a fine, Conrad said.

“If they fail to follow through, they can be held in contempt of court,” Conrad said. “We think this will give us enough leeway to get students in front of the judge.”

State law already gives the district the authority to work with the court to impose fines on parents for neglecting their responsibilities to make sure their children are attending school.

Conrad said the policy only applies to students 16 and older because there are often cases when older students aren’t attending school even though parents are doing everything they can to make them go.

“It’s difficult to fine students as they get younger,” Conrad said. “At that point, it really is the responsibility of the parents.”

Conrad said this was the only option for the district, after changes made to the CHINS program earlier this year. In budget negotiations, the Legislature changed the law so that only children who have a mental health diagnosis and meet a subjective dangerousness threshold qualify for CHINS petitions. Before the change, police or school officials could use a CHINS application to bring at-risk youth to court if the youth was chronically truant, running away or otherwise unmanageable.

School and local officials had been working to find other ways to serve at-risk kids following changes to the state’s CHINS laws. Working with city attorney Steve Bennett, Conrad said he was able to find other state statutes that could compel students to court.

Students could face up to a $100 fine a day for each offense after missing their 20th day unexcused, according to the change. The compulsory age for attendance was raised from 16 to 18 in 2009.

Board members were supportive of the idea and approved it unanimously at a meeting Monday night. Sandra Ziehm said she’s glad there will be more bite to the policy.

“I’m encouraged that we’re doing this,” she said.

Conrad said the addition to the policy means the district will once again start holding sessions of truancy court at Nashua High School North. Last year, the district began holding sessions of truancy court at Nashua North, in addition to holding other sessions at the more traditional setting at Nashua District Court. However, that was put on hold this year after the change to the CHINS program.

Conrad said the program last year was highly effective, with many of the students who took part in the sessions at North saw dramatic improvements in attendance. The purpose of holding sessions at the high school is to have students and parents come to school for court, rather than downtown.

Last year, the Board of Education added consequences for poor attendance for student athletes, allowing for students to be prohibited from extra-curricular activities for up to a year if they missed more than 20 days of school for no reason.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or