Education

Back to school: Laws change on sunscreen, e-cigarettes, truancy

Cafeteria server Maria Arreola passes out trays to children during the first day of school at Dove Elementary School in Grapevine in this 2014 file photo. Many area districts are adding locally grown fare to the menus for school year that starts Monday for most.
Cafeteria server Maria Arreola passes out trays to children during the first day of school at Dove Elementary School in Grapevine in this 2014 file photo. Many area districts are adding locally grown fare to the menus for school year that starts Monday for most. Special to the Star-Telegram

Students can legally take sunscreen to school and truancy is no longer a crime under two of the new laws families need to know about as the school year gets rolling.

The Texas Legislature made several major and minor decisions that directly affect students and parents, said Dax Gonzalez, communications manager for the Texas Association of School Boards in Austin.

Most North Texas public schools begin classes Monday or Tuesday. Kris Savage, president of the Fort Worth Independent School District Council of PTAs, said the district is using a video campaign to remind parents that school is starting.

Here are five key law changes:

Truancy: Now a civil offense

Texas lawmakers this year changed truancy from a criminal offense to a civil offense in House Bill 2398.

“It requires the school district to work a little bit more to get the kids back into the classroom,” Gonzalez said, explaining that students who are pregnant or a family’s sole breadwinner or homeless can’t be treated as a criminal now.

“They wanted to keep kids out of the criminal justice system and in schools,” Gonzalez said.

School districts are required to put together a series of processes to help bring truant students back to school.

Megan Overman, spokeswoman for Eagle Mountain-Saginaw schools, said the district tries to identify and reverse potential attendance issues before they get worse.

“We begin interventions to help students correct an attendance issue starting with the third absence,” Overman said. “That is standard practice in our district already.”

The Fort Worth school district has a Comprehensive Truancy Intervention Program that addresses all the mandates in the new law, spokesman Clint Bond said.

It has 13 Stay In School Coordinators and a program that includes: early notification of parents for unexcused absences, letters sent home after three unexcused absences, Student Attendance Review Team meetings with parents about contributing factors to truancy after five to six unexcused absences, home visits, coordinated Student Support Plans, and an integrated effort by all Student Support Services staff to address contributing factors to truancy.

Testing: Graduation committees formed

Students who have failed end-of-course state tests twice can have their cases reviewed by a committee that includes principals, parents, counselors and possibly graduate anyway.

The change, in Senate Bill 149, has the committee look at criteria including grade-point averages and college entrance exam results to see whether it will allow the student to graduate.

Advocacy groups had hoped the Texas Legislature would reduce the number of tests for students in grades three through eight, but that didn’t happen, said Theresa Trevino, president of Texans Advocating For Meaningful Student Assessment.

This year has the same number of STAAR tests as 2014-15.

In the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district, benchmark and other testing has decreased from the 2014-15 testing schedule, a spokeswoman said.

At Fort Worth schools, there are two benchmark tests in each STAAR-tested grade and subject, said Sara Arispe, the district’s associate superintendent of accountability and data quality. There are also evaluations built into lessons, she said.

Money: More state funding to schools

Some districts are receiving more state money to pay for enrollment growth, Gonzalez said.

“They put in an extra $1.5 billion back into the system,” he said, explaining it was an effort to get back to previous funding levels. “Any addition is better than a cut.”

Education advocates are waiting for the Texas Supreme Court to hear a lawsuit in September that challenges the way public school are funded in Texas. If the case is upheld, lawmakers would have to find a more efficient way to finance schools.

At the H-E-B district, a net gain of $1.2 million is helping pay for a 3 percent salary increase for district employees.

The Arlington school district’s budget is $9 million higher for 2015-16 because of higher property values and more revenue from the state. A 3 percent salary increase was approved for all employees, and new positions are funded to reduce class sizes in sixth grade, open the new Patrick Elementary School and support academic programming.

Food service: Deep fat frying policy change

On June 28, the Texas Department of Agriculture repealed rules that prohibited deep fat frying and the sales of certain carbonated drinks for schools participating in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Program.

“Parents, superintendents, principals and locally elected school board members are best equipped to make decisions for their own communities, and I trust them to make the right choice for their schools,” Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said earlier this summer.

Bringing back fryers “would be a step backward with the nutrition for our district,” said Overman of the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw district. “We are starting to serve locally grown organic produce in our schools this year to help give the students of our district a more ‘farm-to-school’ menu. It also will help us give back to the local economy supporting Texas farmers.”

Neither the Fort Worth district, Arlington or HEB plan to bring them back either.

Under another change in food service, if a child’s school meal card goes below a zero balance districts still have to provide a meal for the child, Gonzalez said.

“They would take the tray and throw it away,” he said. “People were surprised that they would just throw the food away.”

Student health: E-cigarettes banned

Three key health changes were made involving e-cigarettes, sunscreen and Epipens used to treat severe allergic reactions.

Possession or use of electronic cigarettes is prohibited at school-related or school-sanctioned activities on or off school property under Senate Bill 97, which was signed by the governor in May.

School boards must add the prohibition and publish information about enforcement policy and procedures by Oct. 1. This means no electronic cigarettes at football games, Gonzalez said.

“I’m sure a good number of them [school districts] were already banning them,” Gonzalez said. “There might be some angry parents, but I am sure there are some who are happy about it, too.”

The state law mirrors Fort Worth school policy. In spring 2014, the district banned electronic cigarettes from district property. They joined a list of prohibitions that include weapons and abusive language.

Under another law change, Senate Bill 265 allows students to take sunscreen to school and apply it themselves, Gonzalez said. In the past, it was treated as a over-the-counter drug.

Finally, Senate Bill 66 allows school to establish a process for keeping epinephrine auto-injectors, commonly called EpiPens, on campuses to administer if a student suffers a severe allergic reaction at school.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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