Education Law

Absenteeism and Truancy: The Cost of Cutting Class

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
Cutting class repeatedly can lead to serious consequences, from higher dropout rates to juvenile court. But many states are trying to address chronic absenteeism with prevention programs.

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—whether to hang out with their friends or to babysit their little brothers and sisters. As evidence mounted about the harm caused by missing too much school, lawmakers in many states imposed serious penalties on kids who regularly cut class. More recently, however, several states have revised their approach to the problem, with truancy prevention programs and other support services. Still, uncooperative truants could end up in juvenile court, and their parents could face fines and even jail.

Who Has to Go to School?

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. (See our chart for the compulsory education ages in all 50 states, including links to find out more details about the dropout requirements in your state.)

When Are Absences Excused?

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:

  • illness, injury, and medical appointments
  • a family member’s death
  • religious holidays
  • school suspension
  • spending time with a parent who’s on leave from military deployment, and
  • other personal reasons that school officials have approved, such as family emergencies or religious instruction.

Of course, a lot of kids miss school because of other 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, schools will treat any students as truants if they have repeated unexcused absences, whatever their motivations. And in some states or individual schools, excused absences count toward the total number of days that students can miss in a year before they face lost privileges or attendance improvement programs.

The Costs of Truancy

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 (generally 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.

Truants (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.

For more information on the legal consequences for truant students and their parents in your state, follow the links in the list below. (If you don’t see a link to your state, check back later; this site is still under construction.)




South Carolina




South Dakota



New Hampshire




New Jersey




New Mexico




New York




North Carolina




North Dakota





Washington, D.C.




West Virginia











Rhode Island

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