Most people know that dropping out of school is likely to bring financial consequences down the road. But they may not realize that dropouts can suffer legal consequences as well. Florida (like every state) has “compulsory education” laws that require students to start school by a certain age and keep attending until they finish high school or reach a certain age. Students and their parents may face penalties for violating these laws, unless they qualify for one of the exceptions.
Below is a summary of the laws in Florida that deal with compulsory education, the consequences of dropping out, and high school equivalency diplomas. (Because laws can change at any time, it’s always a good idea to check the current statute by using this search tool.)
Requirements for Dropping Out Legally
Once students are 16 years old, Florida law allows them to leave school before graduating, but only if they:
- file a formal declaration with the school board, in which they acknowledge that dropping out is likely to reduce their earning potential
- get their parents’ written consent (by having them signing the declaration)
- participate in an exit interview with the school counselor or other school officials, and
- complete a survey about their reasons for dropping out and what the school did to prevent that from happening.
(Fla. Stat. § 1003.21(1)(c).)
The state’s compulsory education laws don’t specifically say when students can drop out without parental permission. But they should have the right to make that decision on their own when they’re no longer minors: at age 18 or when they become legally emancipated.
Penalties for Truant Students
If students stop going to school before they’ve met the age and other requirements for dropping out legally, the school can file a truancy petition. After a hearing, the court may order the student to pay a penalty or do certain things, such as attend alternative classes or perform community service. Students who don’t obey the court orders or who quit school without their parents’ knowledge could find themselves under the juvenile court’s control as a dependent child or a “child in need of services.” Once they’ve been declared in need of services, children who continue to disobey court orders can face punishment, including juvenile detention. (Fla. Stat. §§ 984.151, 1003.26.)
Penalties for Parents of Truant Students
Parents of a student who dropped out illegally might be found guilty of a misdemeanor (with up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine), unless they can show that they weren’t aware of the truancy or they tried their best to keep the child in school. If parents don’t obey court orders to participate in services like counseling or parenting classes, they can also be found in contempt of court. (Fla. Stat. §§ 775.082, 775.083, 984.151, 1003.26.)
High School Equivalency Tests
A high school equivalency diploma is the same as a regular high school diploma for purposes of Florida’s compulsory education laws (as well as admission to state universities or colleges). Floridians can receive an equivalency diploma by passing the general educational development (GED) test. Generally they have to be 18 in order to take the test, but 16 and 17 year olds can get a waiver of the age requirement in “extraordinary circumstances.” Local school districts decide what circumstances qualify, and a school board representative must sign the waiver form. (Fla. Stat. § 1003.435.)
Driving Without a Diploma
Floridians who drop out of school won’t be able to get a driver’s license before they turn 18, unless they have a high school equivalency diploma, are attending GED prep classes or other approved educational activities, or have received a hardship waiver or exemption certificate. (Fla. Stat. § 322.091.)
If your minor child has stopped going to school despite your best efforts—and is either under 16 or hasn’t gone through the steps for dropping out legally—it’s a good idea to contact the school. A counselor or other school official may be able to refer your child to dropout prevention programs and services provided by the school district. But if your child has already been away from classes long enough to meet the definition of a truant, consider speaking with a lawyer. An attorney experienced in education or criminal law should be able to explain the legal consequences that both you and your child might face, as well as the steps you can take to avoid those consequences.