Havre de Grace High's Sick Policy

January 07, 1994

With all the concern about soaring medical costs in this country, you'd think the Harford County schools might be doing their share to control this economic burden. Not so at Havre de Grace High School, where students require a visit to the doctor if they miss more than five days of class in a quarter. Otherwise, they flunk all their classes, regardless of their academic performance.

The rule was adopted to improve attendance at the Havre de Grace school, after development by a committee of parents, students and teachers. Because attendance and dropout rates are the two areas in which Harford County schools fail to meet state standards, the objective is understandable and laudable. But the method is poorly reasoned, discriminatory and probably counter-productive.

The rule assumes that parents are not to be trusted in deciding whether a child is too ill to attend class on a given day, which is contrary to the school board's positions about parent responsibility. If the high school feels that parents are encouraging truancy and failing to meet their legal obligations, let the school system use the laws that exist to punish or pressure the parents. And if the child fails to do satisfactory work because of "unexcused" absences, that may also be a justifiable penalty; those with serious, persistent health problems will verify them and should be accommodated.

Even more outrageous is the requirement that families must pay a doctor to certify an illness. Physicians can do little for common colds or headaches -- "Take two aspirin and call me tomorrow" is a common prescription. And there are religious views of medical science that may also conflict with this dogmatic rule.

There may even be social or other non-medical reasons for a child's absence, understood by a parent but not by a school attendance counter. The need here is for more flexibility in encouraging pupil attendance, not more rigidity. Students who fail because of six absences in a term will likely be discouraged in future attendance and skeptical of the school system's fairness.

Yes, Havre de Grace students can erase the straight E's if they have only three sick days the next quarter. That's a tenuous promise that can only instill fear rather than respect for learning.

The Harford Board of Education, which should decide this policy, disclaims responsibility, saying absentee policies are set by each school. That may well lead to more local experiments that undermine the goals of public education.

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