In the 2015-16 school year, nearly 8 million children were chronically absent in the United States, according to data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. What is the solution? Some say parents should be held directly responsible, especially when young children are involved.
A 27-year-old Michigan mother was ordered to serve jail time and pay a fine after her 6-year-old missed 26 days of school without an excuse. Brittany Horton pleaded guilty to truancy after her child had racked up a total of almost a full month of unexcused absences. “When parents like Ms. Horton refuse to make reasonable efforts to address the truancy problem, our office is committed to making sure the children of our community are not deprived of an education," said Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson in a statement to ABC News. The county prosecutor's office boasts a program called Operation Graduation to combat school truancy. The program includes interventions for parents and students to improve attendance. Bringing families into court over truancy is not isolated to Michigan, however.
Similarly, prior to 2015, Texas filed over 100,000 truancy cases against kids in Texas each year. Many ended up with criminal records that hampered their career prospects. Quite a few of those children missed school to take care of sick relatives, had jobs to help support their families or possessed physical/mental disabilities.
This topic has surfaced quite a bit in news programs recently, due to the past involvement of some Democratic presidential candidates . Whereas many of them supported or even pioneered such measures in the past, most are now backpedaling and changing their tune, citing research that says such practices do little to prevent truancy and, in the end, are harmful to families.
As California attorney general, Kamala Harris brought down truancy rates and got more kids into the classroom – by threatening jail time for their parents. Both Harris and another former prosecutor Senator Amy Klobuchar put children and parents in court. Harris especially pushed tough-on-truancy, shepherding it into law in California. The policy has lost favor among experts and candidates, and Harris has said she regrets some of the effects of prosecuting truancy. But it worked, her defenders say. Harris’ controversial history with truancy dates back to 2006. That's when, as San Francisco's district attorney, she started a program to lower school truancy rates. If the first two stages of the program, education and intervention, failed, parents were subject to prosecution. As recent as 2010, Harris pushed for a California law allowing prosecutors to fine or jail a parent “who has failed to reasonably supervise and encourage the pupil’s school attendance.” In the years since, Harris has walked away from these positions. She has now billed herself as a "progressive prosecutor" whose aim was never to lock up parents of truant children.
States such as Texas and Washington used to prosecute students themselves, leaving them with criminal records that prevented them from enlisting in the military and applying to college. In those two states, some of the leaders who pushed to decriminalize missing school are running for president. In May of 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a law that banned jailing truant children and in Texas, truancy was decriminalized in 2015. As mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro – another 2020 candidate – supported reform efforts before the bill's passage.
Not everyone is on board with easing the pressure on truancy. As attorney general of Minnesota’s largest county from 1999 to 2007, Klobuchar pushed tough-on-truancy policies that could result in students and parents appearing in court. In fact, she boasted about a refrigerator magnet that was distributed by her office that said “Go to school or go to court.” As a Senator, she attempted to bring her policies to all states in the nation. Her supporters cite that, in some areas of Minnesota, the truancy rate declined 25% as a result of her tough policies.
I guess the Senator does not feel she should be held to the same standards as students in her state, however, when it comes to her own attendance. From January to June of 2019, Klobuchar missed at least 20 votes on the floor of the Senate. Other candidates have been even more negligent in their duties, though. Senator Cory Booker leads the pack in absences for 2020 candidates, with 64 missed roll call votes, or 36 percent of votes so far this year. Harris ranks second in votes missed among 2020 candidates in the Senate. The California Democrat has missed 49 votes, or 27 percent of votes through June 23. Gillibrand comes in third with the New York Democrat missing 38 roll call votes, or 21 percent. Students are usually considered chronically absent if they miss ten percent or more of school days. I guess the politicians are lucky that nobody is prosecuting them for being chronically absent at their jobs.
So should parents be held accountable for truancy? Should students be prosecuted? Are graduation rates higher when truancy is handled in courts or does it unfairly punish too many families and discriminate against people of color? Senator Klobuchar said that truancy is a “gateway to crime.” If higher truancy rates correspond with higher rates of crime, perhaps she is on to something. One thing is for sure. As with any other enforcement or policy, the only way to be totally fair is to take everyone’s individual situation into account before passing judgment.