Going to school has been a legal requirement in every state for the past 100 years or so. Of course, that hasn’t stopped kids from skipping school for just as long. As evidence mounted about the harm caused by missing too much school, many states passed laws imposing serious penalties on chronic truants and their parents. More recently, however, several states have revised their approach to the problem, with truancy prevention programs and other support services. Still, local prosecutors may use the threat of juvenile court for habitual truants—or potential jail time for their parents—to pressure them to cooperate.
Every state requires school attendance for children between certain ages, usually from about age 6 until 17 or 18. There are exceptions. For instance, compulsory education laws typically don’t apply to students with a physical or mental condition that makes attendance impractical. And most states allow students to drop out before they reach the upper age limit if they meet certain requirements, like getting their parents’ permission.
Of course, a lot of kids miss school because of circumstances that aren’t totally in their control, from problems with bullying to sick family members or not having the money for bus fare. Still, whatever their motivations, students will be considered truants if they’re absent without a valid excuse. When unexcused absences pile up, schools may treat students as chronic or habitual truants (more on that below).
Only some reasons for missing school count as excused absences, even if a parent has given permission. Some states have laws that spell out what are considered excused absences. Others leave it up to local school districts. Either way, your school’s student handbook should explain the rules, including when and how parents must give permission for absences and whether other proof is needed. For more complete information, you should also be able to ask for a copy of the school district’s attendance policies (or find them online).
Typical reasons for excused absences include:
In some states or individual schools, even excused absences count toward the total number of days that students can miss in a year before they lose privileges or must attend improvement programs. And all attendance records are included as part of students’ school records, which follow them throughout their academic careers.
Students risk their future when they’re away from school too often. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, children who are chronically absent (often defined as missing at least 15 days in a school year) are much more likely than their peers to fall behind in reading skills and eventually to drop out of school. Too many unexcused absences could also mean that a student won’t be enrolled for the rest of the school year and won’t be able to move to the next grade level.
Class-cutting kids (and their parents) could also face legal consequences. In many states, students who have more than a certain number of unexcused absences in a school year (often called “habitual truants”) may be referred to the juvenile court and could end up in foster care or even juvenile detention if they keep skipping school. Parents of truants may also face fines or even jail time—as much as three months of “hard labor” in Alabama.
However, lawmakers in several states have recognized that treating truancy as a crime does little to solve the problem. It also penalizes parents who are having trouble controlling their children and can’t afford to pay fines (which can pile up for each day a student is out of school). Instead, these states refer truants to programs meant to address the underlying problems that keep students out of class. For instance, Texas schools now send truant students to a civil truancy court rather than juvenile court. The children may then have to attend special programs that provide training, counseling, or tutorial help. Truancy courts may also order their parents to participate in counseling or take parenting classes.
Follow the links below for more detailed information on the legal consequences for truant students and their parents in some states.