Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
Getting your children to school is part of every parent’s responsibility. The state considers school attendance important enough that it is mandated by law and includes criminal charges for parents who contribute to non-attendance and civil charges for older youth who are truant. The state defines truancy as unexcused absences exceeding 10 days in all or part. This means once your teen has skipped 11 periods in a single semester, the school SHALL begin truancy proceedings. It also means that every time your child is late to school or an individual class by more than 15 minutes, they will be marked as absent. Do that often enough, and you can be criminally charged and your child, if they are older than 12, can be charged with truant conduct. Either charge results in a visit to my court for both of you.
There is no restriction on grade level for a case of a parent contributing to truant conduct. This means that if your kindergartener misses 10 or more days of school, you can be criminally charged. You might think this is extreme, but there is strong evidence that supports early intervention regarding attendance problems.
Every district will have its own standards for the number of unexcused absences that trigger a parental notification. In general, it’s around 5 absences. You’ll be notified that your child has missed multiple days of school and asked to provide parent or doctor notes to cover those dates. If your reason for having your child miss school is not illness related, the school may not excuse the absence even with a parent note. For instance, taking a vacation is not an excused absence. Traveling for a funeral may be excused but it will depend on the district and/or the school policy. In short, your child needs a valid excuse for being late or absent every time they miss school.
There are lots of reasons why starting as early as pre-kindergarten we want to see students in class every day. “Children who are chronically absent (18% or more of the school year) are less likely to read at grade level by the third grade, show lower levels of social engagement, are more likely to drop of school and are less likely to graduate from high school or attend college. Specifically, research evidence shows that kindergarteners who miss 10% or more school days have lower academic performance when they reach first grade.”
Every day that your child is absent from school is a day of missed instruction and missed social interaction.
Research shows, having a sibling with attendance problems can impact younger siblings. From a parenting perspective, parents who feel ill-equipped to handle oppositional behavior or who have difficulty tolerating the distress shown by a school-refusing youth may have difficulty promoting full school attendance across siblings. Children see their parents modeling acceptance of non-attendance and assume that school is unimportant. A lack of morning and evening routines is also seen as negatively impacting attendance. Regular bedtimes and morning routines can ensure your student gets to school on time and has less stress surrounding school. Youth who are raised in families with high conflict, have withdrawn parents, or who are isolated have also been found to demonstrate more school refusal and other attendance problems.
Parents are not the sole contributing factor when it comes to non-attendance or school refusal. Things like poor peer relations and bullying, experiences of social isolation, being new to a school, having few friends or being on an individual education plan can all predict problems with attendance. Fear of violence on the way to school, alienation from school, the need to care for younger siblings, and strict discipline policies that push students out of school contribute as well. Depression and anxiety are also contributing factors that may stem from any of the above issues. Having a child who refuses to go to school, who complains of being fearful or frustrated or who becomes physically ill due to anxiety surrounding attendance is a problem that needs addressing by both parents and school and mental health professionals.
Let’s break this down. We have two kids, Linus and Sally in 1st grade. Linus has an older sister, Lucy, who is in 8th grade and misses school often. Linus also has social anxiety and has trouble making friends at school. He sees his sister arguing with their parents about going to school and staying up late playing video games. He begins to complain of frequent stomach aches and his parents let him stay home with Lucy. He ends up missing 15 days of school in the first semester and 32 in total. By the end of the year, he cannot count by twos, doesn’t recognize his days of the week, can’t write his name without reversing the “s”, and still has trouble making friends. He’ll be entering 2nd grade with a deficit. Sally, meanwhile, attends regularly and has missed only 6 days in the year. She makes many friends, reads at level and excels at math.
If we had intervened when Linus reached 5 absences early in the school year, it might have been possible to address his issues before he lost so much instruction time. Chronic absenteeism involves more than just the school, the parents and the student. For instance, a student from a low socioeconomic family setting may lack essential supports—nutrition, clothing, stable housing situation, healthcare— that contribute to attendance. Family resource organizations, health departments, and charitable centers are community-based support systems that can help address such needs. In Linus’ case, we need to address not just his anxiety-related problems but his sister Lucy’s truancy problems as well. His parents might benefit from parenting classes or family counseling.
Left unremarked upon, Linus’ early school refusal can add up to a student who is increasingly withdrawn and behind his peers. He is at greater risk of not completing high school. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2017 people with high school diplomas earned between $395 and $1,489 per week. Men and women who dropped out of high school made between $330 and $999 per week. People with a bachelor’s degree earn between $580 and $2609 per week. The 2019 Federal Poverty Guidelines state that a single person must make $1,006 a month to be above the poverty level. So, that person who makes $330 a week? They’re just a little above 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. In my court, that means they’re going to get their fines reduced. It also means they’re likely to qualify for food stamps and other public assistance.
You may think that your elementary-aged kiddo doesn’t need to have regular attendance at school. Research shows, however, that too many missed instruction days hurts your child’s chance of academic success, future income and even increases their chance of incarceration. I tell those who come before me in truancy court that school should be looked at like that child’s job. (This works especially well with teens who already have a part-time job). Just like your parents wouldn’t keep their job long if they stayed home from work whenever they didn’t feel like going, you can’t expect to do well in school and graduate if you don’t go to school. Going to school is your full-time job as a youth. Even if you have a part-time job at McDonald’s after school, your first commitment in time and effort should be to your full-time job.
Chronic Absenteeism NEA Research Brief NBI No. 57 (2018)
Functional profiles of school refusal behavior and their relationship with depression, anxiety, and stress Carolina Gonzálveza, Christopher A. Kearneyb, Carlos E. Jiménez-Ayalac, Ricardo Sanmartína, María Vicenta, Cándido J. Inglésd, José M. García-Fernándeza