Education Law

Absenteeism and Truancy: The Cost of Cutting Class

Absenteeism and truancy are fancy words for cutting or ditching class or "playing hookey" from school. No matter what you or your child calls it, there are costs of missing too much school for both of you.

What It Is

Absenteeism or truancy is when a child misses school, voluntarily and on purpose, without a good excuse. The laws in the state sometimes explain when a student may miss school without getting into trouble. Sometimes state law lets the schools create some of their own rules about it. So, the laws and school rules vary a lot from state to state. In general though, absences are excused for things like:

  • A death in the family
  • Illness, but schools may require notes or explanations from the student's health care provider
  • Bad weather or road conditions making travel to and from school dangerous
  • Days of suspension
  • Any other reason school officials approve of either before or after the student's absence

Unfortunately, a lot of students are missing a lot of school and for no good reasons. Statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as well as news accounts from New York to California show how truancy is growing, national problem.

Why It's Tracked

In every state, children are required to go to school for a certain number of years. This is called "compulsory schooling." The ages vary by state, but typically a child is required to attend school from the ages of 5 or 6 and until she turns 16 or 17 years old.

In addition, each state has its own requirement about how many days are in a school year. According to the most recent information from the NCES, the number of days usually is between 175 and 180. Schools usually also require each student to be in school for certain amount of those days each year.

The idea is simple. Our children need to get an education, and they're legally required to do so. They can't get it unless they go to school, whether they go to a private or public school or they're homeschooled.

Truancy leads to all sorts of problems not directly related to education, too. If kids aren't in school when they're supposed to be, then they're out doing something to occupy their time. And it's usually not good. True, some students miss school because they're needed to stay home to babysit siblings while their parents work, or they may need to work to help support the family, or for other well-intentioned reasons.

Nonetheless, students, especially teenagers, are more likely to skip school simply because they don't want to go to school. Maybe they're bored, don't like some teachers or classmates, or don't think they need an education. In cases like this, children may get involved in crimes or begin using and abusing drugs or alcohol, just to name a few unhealthy possibilities.

Costs of Truancy

Of course, the first casualty of missing too much school is the student's education. How can a student learn if he's not in school? The student runs the risk of falling behind his classmates and not advancing in grade levels. In many states, if a student isn't in school for a certain number of days during the school year, she doesn't get "credit" for the year and won't be allowed to advance to the next grade. In Texas, for example, students must be in school at least 90 percent of the school year to get credit.

Many states have other, much harsher penalties, too. For instance, in California, a student with a history of truancy during the year may be declared a "ward" of the local juvenile court, meaning the student comes under the direct control of the court. The court may then do a number of things, such as:

  • Order the student to attend and complete a truancy-prevention program
  • Order the student to complete 20 to 40 hours of community service work during after-school hours or over the weekend, for a period of up to 90 days
  • Fine the student up to $100
  • Suspend or revoke the student's driver's license

Students aren't the only ones penalized for absenteeism and truancy. In many states, parents are held responsible for their child's truancy. For example, in California, if a student is fined by a juvenile court, her parents may be responsible for paying it if the student doesn't.

In states like Texas and Oregon, parents may be charged with a crime, usually a misdemeanor like "contributing to the delinquency of minor." If convicted, a parent may face a fine of several hundred dollars, a few days in jail, or both. The parent may also be ordered to enroll or re-enroll the student in school and provide proof of it to the court. A parent who doesn't follow the court's order may be charged with contempt of court and face even more fines.

All this is on top of the possibility that a parent may lose some of his parental authority and privileges in states like California where a student with a severe truancy problem may become a ward of a juvenile court.

The purposes for these types of laws and penalties are easy to understand: They're supposed to encourage parents to stay involved and help make sure their children go to and stay in school. Every state has a law on truancy and school attendance and the penalties and consequences for parents and students. It's a good idea for parents and students to be familiar with the laws in their area.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What should I do if I can't afford to pay a fine I was ordered to pay because of my child's truancy?
  • My daughter had a truancy problem as a freshman in high school, but she's had no problems since. She's getting ready to graduate and now we're wondering if the truancy problem is in her school records and if it will hurt her chances of getting into college? Can we get the truancy information removed from her record?
  • My son was arrested by a truancy officer. Does that mean he now has a criminal record?
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