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. Pennsylvania (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 Pennsylvania 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 statutes.)
Requirements for Dropping Out Legally
In general, Pennsylvania law requires students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 17. But the compulsory education law doesn’t apply to:
- 16-year-olds who have a job during school hours, along with an employment certificate
- children who are at least 14 years old, are doing farm work or domestic service in a private home with a permit, and—if they’re under 15—have finished elementary school
- students who’ve been excused from further schooling based on the finding of a certified school psychologist or approved mental clinic, or
- children who live at least two miles from any public school in certain school districts that don’t provide free transportation.
(24 Pa. Stat. §§ 13-1326, 13-1327, 13-1330.)
Consequences for Truant Students
When students stop going to school before they’ve met the age or other requirements for dropping out legally, they’ll be treated as habitual truants (once they have six or more unexcused absences during the school year). If they’re younger than 15, the school will refer them:
- to an attendance- improvement program, or
- for possible treatment as a dependent child under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.
For children who are at least 15, the school will either:
- refer them to an improvement program and, if they refuse to participate or continue to stay out of school, for potential treatment as a juvenile court dependent; or
- file a citation with the court.
After a citation is issued, there will be court hearing. If the student is convicted, the judge may sentence the truant student to pay a fine, perform community service, or complete an approved attendance-improvement program. The court may also send a record of the conviction to the Department of Transportation, which will then suspend the student’s driver’s license or refuse to issue a license. (24 Pa. Stat. §§ 13-1326, 13-1333.1, 13-1333.2, 13-1333.3.)
Penalties for Parents of Truant Students
Schools may also issue citations against parents of habitual truants who live with them (or anyone in the same household who’s taking on a parental role). Parents may defend themselves at the hearing by proving that they took “every reasonable step” to get their kids to school. Otherwise, if the court finds that they didn’t meet their responsibilities under the compulsory education laws, it may order them to pay a fine and court costs, or to perform community service. Any parent who doesn’t comply with the penalty could be found in contempt of court and be sentenced to jail time (up to three days). (24 Pa. Stat. §§ 13-1326, 13-1333.1, 13-1333.2, 13-1333.3.
High School Equivalency Credential
Pennsylvania residents can obtain a Commonwealth Secondary School Diploma by passing a high school equivalency test or completing 30 college credits. Normally, they have to be 18 years old to take the test, and they can’t actually get the diploma until their high school class has graduated. But 16- and 17-year-old dropouts can take the test with certain documentation (including a letter from an employer, college, or military branch). And if the school district recommends it, they can receive the diploma once they pass the test. (22 Pa. Code § 4.72.)
If your child has stopped going to classes, it’s a good idea to contact the school. A counselor or other school official may be able to help or at least recommend resources and options. But if your child is considered 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.