The Boston Public Schools attendance policy states that absences due to religious holidays are excused. See page 14 of the 2007-2008 Guide to the Boston Public Schools. This is not surprising, since it would be blatantly and obviously unconstitutional for a public school to treat absences due to religious holidays as unexcused absences. Unfortunately, despite the published policy, the BPS does exactly that, as friends of mine discovered during the 2006-7 school year.
My friends had a son enrolled in the BPS pre-kindergarten program. Following the school’s published policies, they dutifully sent notes to the school in advance of each Jewish holiday, indicating which days their son would be absent and explaining the religious nature of the absences.
After sending in one such note, they were informed that of the five days their son would be missing due to the holiday, four of them would be treated as unexcused absences.
When they asked why, they were informed that only religious holidays listed on the official BPS calendar could be taken as excused absences. Of course, the official BPS calendar, like most other calendars not published specifically by and for Jews, does not list the majority of Jewish holy days. For example, neither Sukkot (a nine-day holiday) nor Shavuot (two days) are listed at all, and only the first day of Passover (eight days) is listed; all of these are holidays during some of whose days observant Jews cannot attend school. Amusingly, all eight days of Hanukkah are listed, even though observant Jews can attend school throughout that holiday! (For more information about the Jewish holidays, see my Jewish holidays calculator).
Please note that this policy is not only discriminatory against Jews; there are many other religions whose holidays are not fully represented in the official BPS calendar.
When my friends discussed the problem with the principal of the school, she them that she would handle the issue by not reporting their son absent on those days. Note that the principal is not given discretion by the BPS to excuse absenses — she is bound to follow BPS policies to the letter, and hence the only means at her disposal to solve a problem like this is to lie on the attendance records. In addition to the underlying school-autonomy problem this illustrates, there’s a major safety issue as well. If the attendance records for a particular day are not accurate, then what happens if the school needs to be evacuated for whatever reason, and emergency personnel try to use the attendence records to determine whether everyone has been removed from the school?
My friends sent the BPS a detailed letter of complaint, explaining why their policy was discriminatory; citing both law and precedent to illustrate its unconstitutionality (although, frankly, it should be obvious that the policy is unconstitutional); and demanding both an apology and a change in the policy. They also asked the Jewish Alliance for Law & Social Action (JALSA) for assistance.
JALSA entered into a dialogue with the BPS legal department. In the middle of that dialogue, when some progress seemed to be happening, the lawyer handling the complaint at BPS retired! JALSA has not (yet) made any progress with the new lawyer handling the complaint, who obviously has to start from scratch.
JALSA informed my friends that since they hadn’t actually been damaged by the policy (students in pre-K are not held back for too many unexcused absences; that doesn’t start until kindergarten), they had no grounds to sue the school individually. However, JALSA said they would continue trying to work the issue with the BPS to see if any progress could be made.
It is worth noting that people like my friends are exactly the kind of people that BPS should be doing their best to attract to the public schools — smart, educated, involved parents who care about their children’s futures and thus care deeply about the quality of their children’s schools. This particular incident is just one of the many that drive such families away from the BPS and into the suburbs or private schools.