Minn. online schools go old school to nab cyber-truants

Stacy Bender
Stacy Bender, the truancy officer for Minnesota Virtual High School, poses at the Hopkins Library before meeting with students who haven't been logging into class enough and have fallen behind in their work in Hopkins, Minn.
AP Photo/Jim Mone

By CHRIS WILLIAMS, Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Minnesota's online schools have quietly persuaded county prosecutors to accept an expansive view of the state's outdated truancy law and use the courts to reel hundreds of cybertruants back to class, but both prosecutors and educators agree the makeshift arrangement can't last.

It's important work, school officials say, at a time when enrollment in online schools is soaring, but so are dropout rates. Online students made up a disproportionate share of truancy cases last year, and virtual schools worry about a backlash against their industry if they are perceived as havens for slackers.

"It is very easy to become truant in online," said Stacy Bender, dean of students at Minneapolis-based Minnesota Virtual High School, which has 1,300 students spread throughout the state. Unmotivated students can just stop logging in and then lie about it to their parents and within two weeks, they are truant, she said.

To catch online truants, Bender and her colleagues in online schools in Minnesota use mathematical formulas that compare the hours spent on online lessons and academic progress. The formula allows for high achievers who work quickly, while catching students who are just going through the motions.

Bender has been key to spreading the interpretation, both in her current job and previously at the smaller Wolf Creek Online High School in Lindstrom. She runs a web site, mnonlinetruancy.weebly.com, has written on the subject for a trade journal and presented it Nov. 10 at the annual conference of the International Association for K-12 Online Learning. She said she has also put 3,500 miles on her Honda Civic since January working on truancy issues in counties throughout the state.

The problem is that definition isn't how Minnesota's truancy laws were written. The definition for a "habitual truant" is a child under 16 who has unexcused absences on seven days in elementary school, or for one or more class periods on seven days in the higher grades. There's nothing about the flexible scheduling of online schools nor any provision for academic progress.

"When that was written, I'm sure there weren't many online schools," said Matt Engelking, chief of the juvenile division in the Stearns County attorney's office, which was initially reluctant to bring truancy cases because of the uncertainty.

Engelking said his office has decided it's best for the students to push the online cases forward and hope the county's judges don't throw them out. He said the Legislature needs to update the law so online truants and their families don't escape consequences.

"As our society changes, and the ways we educate kids, we need to make sure that our laws are keeping pace with that, otherwise there's the possibility that kids will fall through the cracks and not get the help they might need," Engelking said.

Not all county attorneys agree. Clay County won't bring the cases forward because authorities there say they have no way to track online attendance. "We're not legally allowed to go into their house and see if they have been online or not," said Tracy Sunde, a county social worker who works with truants.

When a Minnesota school considers a student habitually truant, it's legally obligated to notify the authorities in the students' home county -- meaning an online school may work with all 87 Minnesota counties. The notification triggers a process that typically includes meetings between educators, county officials and the student's family to write a court-approved plan to get the student back to school. Violators can be sentenced to community service or fined. In very rare cases, parents can lose custody of the child.

Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter, chairwoman of the juvenile law committee of the Minnesota County Attorney's Association, said the committee has begun drafting a bill to close the gap between the truancy law and online schools. They hope to submit it to the Legislature next year.

The effort is part of a broader movement around the country to bring education laws written in late 18th and early 19th centuries up-to-date with online education, said Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, who has written about the conflict.

"This truancy question ... is kind of the raw and exposed nerve between the clash of all of these century-and-a-half-old routines and the potentials that are in front of us," he said. Similar debates have sprung up around requirements for a set numbers of hours in a school day, for example, Hess said.

The number of students in full-time online classes at state-approved schools more than tripled, to 12,000, during the three school years ending in 2009-2010, according to a legislative auditor's report in September. Another 8,000 students took online courses offered at their brick-and-mortar schools.

The same report raised concerns about performance, with 12th-grade dropouts from online schools jumping from 18 percent to 25 percent over the three years ending in 2009-2010. That compared to just 3 percent in all schools statewide.

State education data shows online truancy accounted for 3 percent of the 46,000-plus cases reported last year, while online enrollment was less than 1 percent of the state total.

Bender, the Minnesota Virtual High School dean, said operating under the current law isn't sustainable as more families turn to online schools for scheduling flexibility or because traditional schools aren't working. She said there should be clear legal consequences for students and their parents for skipping class.

If not, she said, "The public will view it as truant kids can just fly over to online schools and escape truancy interventions."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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