I looked at the mom/client sitting next to me in the courtroom and gave her hand a squeeze.
She looked up and gave me a slight smile, our only communication since we did not speak the same language. I leaned over to the caseworker on her other side, who translated for us.
Just then, the judge’s voice got louder. “I don’t care what you need to do, you have to get those kids to school.”
Can a parent go to jail for truancy?
Wow. A dad had just explained that he is a single dad, working two jobs and he is not home in the morning when his kids should be leaving for school. Being ornery teenagers, I suppose, they frequently stay home. And now dad is in truancy court.
The dad got up, looking deflated despite a 30-day continuance, and walked out of the courtroom.
I wondered, what is he going to do? Don’t his kids care? Will he ground them? Would it matter? Do they have/need IEPs and just hate school because it’s too hard for them? Or just a couple of bratty teenagers?
We were next. The three of us approached the bench. We made our case and got a 60-day continuance to turn things around. But we got the same reprimand as the previous parent: Next time their will be fines.
I got that family back on track with an IEP instead of a 504, and no more bus suspensions.
Yes, you can go to jail.
We had a very unfortunate case in nearby Berks County (the county directly north of mine) that put the spotlight on school truancy. It is well known that truancy laws unfairly attack poor families and special needs kids. Right now, Berks County alone is averaging about 100 parents each year being jailed for truancy charges. For this particular story, the mom was jailed and died in jail. Single mom, too. Truancy is often a retaliation attack that school personnel participates in if a parent is advocating in the IEP process.
So with all that in mind, here are some basics on truancy and what you can do to stay positive and not be fined or in jail.
What is Truancy?
The literal definition of truancy is: the action of staying away from school without good reason; absenteeism
Wait, don’t get all heated up about that “without good reason” part. We’ll get to that.
Truancy and truancy laws have been around forever. But, it wasn’t until No Child Left Behind in 2001 that schools were required to keep data on truancy and make reports. I personally have gone to truancy court with several clients as moral support (I am not an attorney!) or as an interpreter.
I think that this is often what we think of when we think of school truancy. Like it’s some kind of joke. It’s not.
Please note: School truancy and school refusal are two separate issues, but often closely related. Talk with your child’s behaviorist and the team if you believe you have a school refusal issue with your child. Homebound, out of district placement and other option discussions may be warranted.
What is unfair is when special needs and IEP families are unfairly targeted. I have seen undocumented families unfairly targeted and their children suspended from the bus, with the district full knowing that the parent cannot get a driver’s license. That is one tactic I’ve seen done by schools. If the child acts out, suspend them from the bus but not from school. The school knows that that child cannot get there without the bus, then they start racking up absences.
But we have a lot of doctor and therapy appointments!
Ok, so let’s dig into that “without good reason” part of the definition. Because, chances are if you are reading this post, you think you have very good reasons. Right?
Hey, I get it. My kid is medically complex. Last week he had doctor appointments four out of five days. It sucks. It was a holiday week (July 4) and we spent most of it going to specialists. I would have much rather have been at the pool. Him too. And my other son.
But it is what it is. I have seen absences put in an IEP as accommodation for excessive illnesses. Some kids are legitimately sick quite frequently. I have not seen it get in an IEP for doctor appointments. Get put on appointment wait lists for last-minute cancellations. If K has to miss some school to see a specialist, I make sure that I stack 2-4 appointments on the same day so that we get as much accomplished as possible. The scheduler tells you there’s nothing available? Push. Check again. Use the same persistence you do with them as your IEP team. Do whatever it takes to get appointments scheduled in non-school hours.
But my child gets sick a lot.
Some kids do. Get notes from all of your child’s diagnosing doctors, as well as print-outs about your child’s condition. Put a back-up plan in place. The sibling will bring home the school work. Or Dad will pick it up. Email. There are plenty of options for a child receiving missed school work. Have an SDI that states after X number of consecutive absences, the child will be moved to Homebound Instruction and a teacher sent home.
School staff aggravates him to the point he refuses to go!
Then you need to buckle up for a big fight. A school refusal eval. An FBA. Meticulous record keeping. Emailing the team leader every day if necessary to document every incident that aggravates your child. IEP meetings and PWNs until the problem is solved.
It is important to note: You will hear all kinds of things from other parents. But the truth is, An IEP is NOT a get out of jail free card! Just because your child has an IEP doesn’t mean you get to ignore truancy and absences.
What can we do about truancy charges?
- First, read all your school district policies and state codes on attendance. You need to stay well-informed on how many absences is considered truant, and what is considered an excused vs. unexcused absence.
- Keep good data. Either use the IEP organizer to note the days your child is absent or a kitchen calendar. Make notes about why they were absent.
- Follow the rules. Yes, life happens. But if you are required to call, email, provide a note within X number of days, do it. Cross your Ts and dot your Is.
- When you see patterns developing, investigate them. Why is your child absent? Do you have doctors’ notes? Is this school refusal? ALL behavior tells us something. So what is the behavior telling you?
- Be proactive and work with the school. Should you find yourself in truancy court at a later date, if you have all the data and documentation that shows that you have been working with the school and trying to get your child there, the judge is much more likely to work with you.
- Meet with the child’s guidance counselor or team leader to discuss issues. Ask about online options for when the child is sick. Ask for a school refusal evaluation if you think one is necessary. Document ALL incidents of bullying if that is the issue.
- Go with your gut. If you feel you are being unfairly targeted, investigate. Do a Right to Know request, and ask your district how many families have been referred to truancy court, and how many of those families were minority/special needs. If there is a discriminatory pattern, contact an attorney.
Can we get out of Truancy Charges?
- First, ask the school for a copy of your child’s attendance records. Make sure that they match yours and correct any differences.
- Make sure that you have read up on your school’s truancy and attendance policies, and that the school district has done their part to help you. Many states require that districts have a Truancy Prevention Program, so see if yours does and what it entails. The school bears some responsibility other than being there with the doors open.
- See if an attorney will at least do a free consult. See if there are free Legal Aid type services in your area for low-income families if you qualify. Call your state’s Protection and Advocacy group if you feel that your child is being treated differently than his/her non-disabled peers.
- Read this. While some of the policies are specific to one state, it gives you a lot of ideas to consider and pursue.
Wrapping up, it sucks. America’s families are already struggling financially, you’re working hard to earn a living for your family, and you’re raising a child with special needs. You have IEP hassles and stress, an extraordinary burden. And now you’re dealing with truancy. Take some deep breaths, and just start plugging away at it. I wish that parents didn’t have to deal with this, because the actual number of kids who are truant just because they don’t feel like going to school is actually very small. But hang in there and it will be over soon.
I never did find out what happened with that dad and I’ve thought about him and others often. Hopefully, his story has a positive ending. Yours too!
(author note: post originally written in 2015, updated recently)