Missouri parents can be jailed if their children fail to attend school regularly, the state Supreme Court ruled this week.
The litigation centered around Tamarae LaRue and Caitlyn Williams in Lebanon, Mo., who were sentenced to jail after their elementary-school-age children each missed about 15 or more days of class in the 2021-22 school year. The schools attempted to contact the mothers after six days with no response. The mothers claim they called in to explain some of the absences after over a week. Officials at the Lebanon R-III School District, a southwestern Missouri district with about 4,500 students, eventually referred both to prosecutors.
The district’s handbook, which parents must acknowledge reading, says students should maintain an attendance rate of at least 90 percent to prepare children for adulthood and professional life and ensure continuity of learning. Missouri’s compulsory education statute requires children to attend school on a “regular basis,” which attorneys for the Lebanon mothers argued is unconstitutionally vague.
Privacy laws kept the schools from responding to media questions about the mothers and past patterns of school absences concerning their children.
During the hearing it was revealed that Esther Elementary School sent Williams a letter in November 2021 after her daughter’s sixth unexplained absence, telling her “the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education states that students should have a 90 per cent or higher attendance percentage”.
The assistant principal then warned that the absences were affecting her daughter’s performance, and she was subsequently charged with a “class C misdemeanor of violating the compulsory attendance law”.
The court proceeding revealed that neither parent asked for their child’s school work be sent home during the absences.
The Missouri Attorney General’s office said that even minor offenses are violations of the law and that the school district followed up with the parents as absences accrued over two weeks.
In its decision, written by Judge Robin Ransom, the court said that based on common understanding, “no Missouri parent would conclude attendance ‘on a regular basis’ means anything less than having their child go to school on those days the school is in session.” The court acknowledged the implication of its decision “if taken to the extreme” but said prosecutors and school officials have the discretion not to enforce marginal cases.
“Given the notice provided to each parent and that each parent was in control of their young child, evidence existed to support the inference that each parent knowingly failed to cause their child to attend school on a regular basis,” the court wrote in a statement.
The decision comes as school attendance rates have plummeted since the COVID pandemic and as U.S. students’ math and reading scores have dropped to historic lows, according to federal data. Chronic absenteeism, which most education experts equate to missing about 18 days in a 180-day school year, disrupts learning for students and their peers if teachers frequently need to revisit past material. It takes months, even the rest of the school year, for children who have missed more than three weeks of school to catch up.
Experts in education law or absenteeism say there is no one solution to address truancy given the variety of causes. However, most say motivating attendance is more effective than handing out penalties. More than 40 states have some kind of truancy statute that penalizes parents or students for chronic absenteeism, through penalties that can include fines, jail time, taking away driver’s licenses or referrals to child-welfare agencies.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice