A Texas mother is committed to changing a school district's attendance policy after she says her son was not granted an excused absence for attending his young cousin’s funeral.
Christine Barr told The Huffington Post that her 12-year-old son was absent from Houston's Mayde Creek Junior High School on April 28 to go to the funeral of 5-year-old Fiona “Kitty” Carroll, who had drowned in the ocean a few days previously.
She received a notice from the school informing her that her son had missed too many school days and that the school would take legal action against her if he missed any more, Barr told KHOU.
She followed up with the school and found that officials had made an error marking her son as absent on days when he was meeting with a school counselor, according to Barr. The school corrected that error, she told HuffPost, but informed her that it would be marking the funeral absence as "unexcused" because the boy's cousin did not qualify as immediate family. The funeral absence had not been included in the original notice she received.
The Katy Independent School District, which includes Mayde Creek Junior High, has an absence policy that states students may be excused for the “death of an immediate family member." The policy defines "immediate family" as a "parent, guardian, grandparent, sibling of the student or parent, or a person living in the home."
Denisse Coffman, the school district's media relations manager, told HuffPost that Barr's son received no academic penalty for the absence and was given the same amount of time to make up missed work as he would have if the absence had been excused.
She also told HuffPost that the notice about the boy's unexcused absences was totally unrelated to the funeral. She said that when the notice was sent out, his absence for the funeral had not yet been marked unexcused.
Barr, who is an educator herself at a private school, said the issue is not just about her son. She wants to change what she believes is an insensitive policy.
In a letter sent to all Katy school district board members and forwarded to HuffPost, Barr wrote:
For those fortunate in having a close, extended family, there may be many non-nuclear family members with whom they have a relationship which warrants funeral attendance. To those who don’t, it may be important to be able to attend the funeral of a non-family member. Ultimately, those for whom we grieve and need the closure of a funeral do not fit into tidy designations. The compassionate thing to do is recognize this.
Coffman, however, said the policy is a non-issue. She told HuffPost there is little tangible difference between an excused and an unexcused absence. "They're just categorized differently," she said.
Barr, however, feels that the way missed days are categorized is important. "My son wasn't given detention or otherwise punished, but he has an unexcused absence, which means he missed school for an event which has been judged by the district as not being a valid reason for missing class," she said. "If there is no difference, why make the distinction? A funeral should be excused, period."
Coffman, citing truancy laws, acknowledged that too many unexcused absences could result in legal issues. Under Texas law as explained on the Katy school district website, a parent can be prosecuted if a child has 10 or more unexcused absences within a six-month period or three or more unexcused absences within a four-week period.
Coffman also pointed out that the Katy school district's policy is similar to that of many other school districts in Texas -- a statement supported by the Texas Association of School Boards website. The association does indicate that when it comes to excusing absences for deaths, schools may set "their own criteria."
Barr told HuffPost she knows the policy is common, and she wants to see it changed everywhere. "I would love to see parents and concerned students everywhere demand their boards change this apparently ubiquitous policy to one which is more humane," she said.