Senior Yasmin Gupta is not allowed to miss another AP Literature and Composition class for the rest of the year.
If she does, English teacher Jason Hinojosa said he will automatically count any work done in a class she misses as late – even if she completes it when she’s back the next day.
Gupta, who has 117 class-period absences for the year so far, said she’s never experienced this before.
However, she’s not alone. Hinojosa said that several other students in his senior classes are under the same rules if they miss another class.
This situation may seem strange to some students, but – as Gupta soon found out – it’s what’s in the high school handbook that every student signs: “Should a student exceed ten absences per class in a semester, the parents may be officially notified, and the student’s semester grade may be negatively affected.”
According to the handbook, this applies to all absences, regardless of whether they’re excused or unexcused.
However, the “may” included multiple times in the policy and its inherent vagueness when it comes to a “negatively affected semester grade” allows for there to be a certain degree of leniency depending on the reason for absences, such as the most recent reason given by sophomore Bri Davies.
Davies, who has missed over 225 classes, has been out of school sporadically throughout the year because of volleyball events, a knee surgery and multiple bouts of illness.
For the last few months, though, she’s been almost constantly at home due to a brain injury that keeps her from doing more than one hour of work at a time.
“What’s happening now is that I’m not allowed to exceed a certain amount of brain activity in a day,” she said. “I can work for (only) two one-hour increments: I can work for an hour, take a break, work for another hour and then be done.”
If she overworks herself, she risks causing serious brain damage, she said.
Davies said that the school has been very helpful in making sure that she can keep up with schoolwork.
“Stress is really bad for my brain, so they’re trying to be as accommodating as possible,” she said.
When asked, Davies said that she didn’t know what the school policy for attendance was – a stark contrast to Gupta’s experiences.
Gupta has had a variety of reasons for missing class in the past, she said, from her grandfather’s death to a knee injury to making official visits to schools recruiting her for basketball.
However, Gupta now has new rules to keep her from missing more classes.
“From now until the end of the year, they have asked me to bring a doctor’s or dentist’s note because of all my absences,” Gupta said.
“Basically, they don’t believe I’m actually going, so that’s why I have to bring one.”
Davies, meanwhile, has never had to bring a doctor’s note this year to account for her absences.
As clear as it is that Gupta’s and Davies’s situations are on opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s also clear that the attendance policy is designed to account for such technicalities.
“We treat each case individually and confidentially depending on the circumstances of the absences,” head of high school Brooke Wells said.
Wells, along with dean of student life Patricia Jacobsen and assistant to head of high school Valerie Velo, handles attendance issues in the high school.
“Valerie (Velo) tracks absences, Ms. Jacobsen focuses on tardies and unexcused absences, and Ms. Velo and I work out patterns of absences,” Wells said.
If he finds a “pattern” with a student in any class – for example, consistently missed test days or over 10 absences in a single class – Wells said he almost always contacts the teacher.
“Once a pattern of absences is established, we communicate among the teaching teams (groups of teachers who share many of the same students),” he said.
“Teachers also have access to attendance information for their classes.”
According to Wells, action against absences can include communication with medical professionals, discussions with parents, loss of participation points, or loss of the right to make up missing work for full credit.
“It depends on the type of offense and the reason for the absences,” he explained.
Wells said that the harshest form of punishment would be a loss of credit, as in Hinojosa’s class.
On the other hand, actual loss of credit isn’t very common; many of the students who’ve been reprimanded for missing copious classes don’t necessarily lose points.
“Normally (that’s) just the threat,” Wells said. “It’s rare that a student will continue to miss school without an appropriate excuse if they’re gonna lose points.”
In an April 25 poll of 97 high school students, although 23 said that their grade had been somehow affected by missing class, only three in the entire school said that they had specifically been penalized for missing more than 10 periods of a single class in a semester.
Also, although teachers are typically notified of absences, they don’t always take action.
“Teachers have the local right to apply grade penalties if a student’s repeated absences are affecting the class environment,” Wells said.
Hinojosa, a new teacher this year, was the one who initially contacted Wells because he was concerned about what to do about student absences.
“There were some students that I noticed were missing a lot of class,” Hinojosa said.
“I was just wondering what recourse I had, so I asked Mr. Wells what the policy was – as a new teacher I didn’t really know (anything) other than that my students were absent a lot – (and) Mr. Wells said it’s 10 (classes) per semester, and that’s the cutoff.”
After discovering the handbook rule, Hinojosa then spoke to the seniors in question about their absences.
“None of them seemed very surprised,” he said. “A lot of the students seemed to understand and just said, ‘Yeah, I know.’
“Everyone seemed to think that it was reasonable. Like, ‘Yeah, you’re not allowed to make up work for full credit after 10 absences.’”
However, Hinojosa noted that the students didn’t usually seem to know the rule for absences – just that they had been missing a lot of class.
Hinojosa also said that he originally wanted to give a harsher punishment than the late-work penalty Wells decided on.
“I think my (idea) would have been to just give zeros, but I think Mr. Wells thought that was too severe,” he said.
According to senior Cameron Collins, Hinojosa initially gave him a zero on a reading quiz because he was absent the previous week and didn’t do the reading.
“I was gone the week before, and I told (Hinojosa) I didn’t do the reading because I was sick – I didn’t even know the assignment – but he said I had the entire weekend to do it,” Collins said.
After Collins spoke to Wells about the incident, however, Wells talked to Hinojosa, who allowed Collins to retake the quiz.
Wells said that he usually has the final say when it comes to attendance issues, as in this situation.
“It’s not completely up to the teacher,” he said.
Often the disciplinary action taken also depends on what the student has missed. According to Wells, missing class is worse in certain classes than others, such as ones like Hinojosa’s that have class participation as a core part of the grade.
“Discussion classes – such as English and history – are negatively affected by people not being there,” he said.
However, biology teacher Kellie Whited pointed out that science classes can be hurt by absences as well because of missed labs.
“Often there is extensive set-up and clean-up required (and) chemicals that can’t be kept for a long period of time, or there’s a partner required to complete the lab, and there aren’t enough supplies for them to both do the lab individually,” Whited said.
“Making up a lab requires a lot of time on the part of the student and the teacher and can be difficult to schedule.”
According to Wells, making a call on how to address an absence can be a “balancing act” in cases such as the one illustrated by Whited.
“We have to decide what’s fair to the students who did come to school,” Wells said. “We have the right to determine whether to take action. It’s possible that the policy will be (used), but not always.
“We don’t want to punish you for being sick. But if you’re staying home because you’re a second-semester senior, your grades are gonna go down.
“It’s in the handbook. Everyone signs that. Whether you read it, that’s up to you.”
Originally published in the May 8 edition of the Octagon.