I looked at the mom/client sitting next to me at truancy court 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.”
Wow. A dad had just explained that he is a single dad working two jobs and 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 getting a 30-day continuance, and walked out of the courtroom.
Can a parent go to jail for truancy?
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 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, there will be fines.
I got that family back on track with an IEP instead of a 504 and no more bus suspensions.
Truancy Consequences for Parents
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 disabled kids.
Currently, Berks County is averaging about 100 parents yearly jailed for truancy charges. In this particular story, the mom was jailed and died in jail. Single mom, too.
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 truancy definition is: the action of staying away from school without good reason; absenteeism.
Don’t get worked 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.
This is often what we think of when we think of school truancy. Like it’s some joke. It’s not.
Please Note: Truancy and school refusal, while two separate issues are 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 disabled students and IEP families are unfairly targeted. I have seen undocumented families unfairly targeted and their children suspended from the bus, with the district fully 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 child has complex medical needs. 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 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 to 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 during 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 printouts about your child’s condition. Put a backup plan in place. The sibling will bring home the schoolwork. 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 daily 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.
We don’t have an IEP or 504.
Ok, but do you think you need one? Have you been asking for one and repeatedly told no? Because there is something called Child Find, which requires school districts to find and identify children with disabilities.
But, if your child is a neurotypical, healthy, and normally developing child who skips school a lot, well, not sure what to say.
Again, an IEP or 504 is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but it does offer extra protections for the kids who need them.
In most situations, the school district will send out a truancy letter first. The content of these letters varies, but they will tell you who your school’s truancy officer is and what to do. Or, what you must do, if they’ve gone right to the truancy court phase.
A common problem that I see is this. These letters are often sent out only in English and often to non-English speaking parents. The parent may dismiss the letter because they cannot read it.
For Special Education, the district is required to communicate with the parents in the language they request. However, a truancy letter is a gray area. Is it a special education document or not? The district will argue that it is not, of course.
I do not know the case law on this. I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice. It is intended to be food for thought.
I have seen some parents bring an attorney with them to truancy court. Sometimes, the child has a GAL or Guardian ad Litem, who also can attend with the child.
If you cannot afford an attorney or want to do this yourself, make you have all the documentation you need to make a strong case for your family.
How to Get out of Truancy Charges
- First, read all your school district policies and state codes on attendance. You must stay well-informed on how many absences are considered truant and what is excused vs. unexcused.
- Contact an attorney and at least go for a free or low-cost initial consult. Many practices offer these. You want to know what you’re up against and the “climate” in this area, which a good attorney will know.
- Keep good data. Use the IEP Toolkit or a kitchen calendar to note the days your child is absent. Make notes about why they were absent.
- Follow the rules. Yes, life happens. But if you are required to call, email, or provide a note within X 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. If you find yourself in truancy court later, 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.
What happens when you go to Truancy Court?
I’ve been to truancy court several times with clients. It depends on the judge, the allegations, and so on. You will be called up when it’s your turn, and he/she will ask you questions.
Dress clean and professionally. Bring your paperwork and documentation. Be polite. Speak loudly and clearly.
Common sense should prevail: Don’t bring any small children unless you absolutely cannot avoid it. Turn off your phone. Only bring essential adults. This is not a family reunion.
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 its 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 your child is being treated differently than his/her non-disabled peers.
- Keep it up. This isn’t for the faint of heart, and I see and acknowledge that parents also have jobs, and life, might be caregiving for their parents, and so on. Rest, then get back at it.
Wrapping up, dealing with truancy or getting a truancy letter 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 disabilities. You have IEP hassles and stress, an extraordinary burden.
And now you’re dealing with truancy. Take some deep breaths, and start plugging away at it.
I wish parents didn’t have to deal with this because the number of kids who are truant just because they don’t feel like going to school is very small. But hang in there, and it will be over soon.
I never found out what happened with that dad, and I’ve often thought about him and others. Hopefully, his story has a positive ending. Yours too!
(author note: post originally written in 2015, updated recently)