Ohio school safety law to require fast parent notification of absent kids

Schools will have to reach out to families of absent-without-excuse students within two hours of the start of each school day, if a bill that just unanimously passed the Ohio Senate becomes law.

Senate Bill 82, known as the Alianna Alert, was named in memory of 14-year-old Alianna Defreeze, who was abducted on the way to her Cleveland charter school in January 2017. Her parents were unaware that she had not made it to school until the end of the school day, when her mother called to inquire about an upcoming school meeting.

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“The safety of our kids demands we keep accountability for them at home, at school and during the commute to and from,” said State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who co-sponsored the bill. “While many of these instances will be cases where parents simply forget to inform schools of their child’s doctor appointment, it will also put proper procedures in place to identify larger and potentially deadly issues much more quickly that we are currently doing.”

The bill passed the Ohio Senate 33-0 this week and now moves on to the Ohio House.

Jennifer Hogue, director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association, said schools are currently required to notify families, but the law only calls for notification within a “reasonable” amount of time, rather than any set standard.

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The new bill would standardize the time but would allow schools to try to make contact via phone, email, text or other method. If the call is automated, there must be verification that the call was either answered by its intended recipient or that a voice mail message was left. In the Defreeze homicide, the school’s automated system was not working that day, according to a Cleveland.com report.

“The original bill asked that it be a human making the phone call,” Hogue said. “We explained that districts across the state have different systems – some have electronic systems that can cross reference when a teacher enters attendance in a classroom with the list of students who have been called in, and the system can make an electronic phone call much quicker than someone sorting through and dialing a phone.”

Hogue said those and other adjustments made after the bill was introduced will allow schools to comply with the law with only minor tweaks to their current system.

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Centerville Superintendent Tom Henderson said that for years his district has been making these calls quickly in the morning, so little adjustment will be needed.

“At the middle schools, advisory period ends at 9 a.m., so we’ve generated an absentee list by 9:15, and if parents have not called in, we’re contacting them by probably 9:25 or so,” Henderson said.

He acknowledged that larger schools, especially those with higher absentee rates, could have a lot of calls to make fairly quickly.

Other concerns come if a parent has changed phone numbers and forgotten to notify the school.

But Henderson said Centerville schools have emergency contacts for each student if they can’t reach the parents. He added that Centerville is fortunate that a high percentage of parents call in student absences.

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The bill was originally introduced by State Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland.

“Time is a very important factor in finding a missing person. Senate Bill 82 does not aim to blame school districts for what happened to Alianna or other missing children across the state,” Williams said. “It is simply designed to make sure that across Ohio parents are made aware when their children are not in school and can take quick, necessary action to find them if they don’t know where they are.”

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