Parents Face Felony Charges After Kids Play Hooky. Is It Fair?

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Hopping aboard the growing national trend to criminalize parents of truant kids is at least one middle school, which charged two moms and one dad with felonies on Tuesday after authorities had deemed their adolescents’ lack of attendance to be excessive.

Indiana’s Delaware County chief deputy prosecutor Judi Calhoun charged each of the parents, of Southside Middle School students in Muncie, Ind., with a Level 6 felony — which “carries up to 30 months in prison,” according to The Star Press. And although Calhoun told the newspaper that the parents would simply receive citations to appear in court rather than be arrested, the move to criminalize moms and dads is one that’s sparked heated debate around the country.

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“Absence from school is an undeniable problem. We know it is correlated with lower grades, with dropping out of high school, and with trouble with the law. What is less certain is if treating truancy as a crime addresses these underlying issues in an effective and reasonable way,” pointed out a lengthy New Republic story on the topic last year. “Such interventions have not been proven to increase school attendance or decrease long-term criminal behavior. In fact, the criminalization of truancy often pushes students further away from school, and their families deeper into poverty.”

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Calhoun did not return a call from Yahoo Parenting seeking comment, so it’s not clear whether the parents in this case will face fines or other penalties as a result of the charges. But she did tell the Star Press, “We’re going to see more of [these cases],” adding that most prosecutions will involve students “in middle school or below,” as it’s difficult to prove that parents are responsible for older students’ absences. She would not specify how many days had been missed so as to not establish a maximum number allowable. The crackdown, district spokesperson Ana Pichardo tells Yahoo Parenting, is related to a grant the Southside Middle School has received to hire a truant officer. She also noted that superintendent Steven Baule was not available for comment on Wednesday.

Truancy laws vary widely around the country, with many of them harsh — something that received intense scrutiny in 2014, when a 55-year-old Pennsylvania mom died in her jail cell following her arrest for not paying $2,000 in fines stemming from her kids skipping too much school. “This women died in prison — away from her family — and for what?” Berks County Commissioner Kevin Barnhardt said at the time. “What did she learn from this?”

Other less extreme but striking examples include Georgia, where more than five unexcused absences in a school year can lead to fines of up to $100 or 30 days in jail; Tennessee, where truancy can land a parent in jail for 30 days; and California, where the harshest penalties can see parents fined up to $2,000, jailed for a year, or both.

West Virginia cracked down on truancy beginning in 2010, with a law that requires schools to refer such cases to the courts after five days of unexcused absences if parents don’t attend a conference about their child. “People are now realizing we’re going to take truancy seriously,” said Josh Stowers, the state’s deputy treasurer who created the law while serving in the legislature, according to the New Republic article. “When a student is in elementary school, they’re going to share the values of their parents or whomever they live with. It’s child abuse if they don’t send them to school. Quite honestly, it’s criminal behavior. We will figure out how to help that child.”

Organizations such as Attendance Works, however, point to other solutions, such as employing “attendance teams” to track absences and develop intervention plans for students with difficulties, such as calling parents, making home visits, and connecting families with various community support services.

Because of efforts like these, some states have moved in the opposite direction and have moved to decriminalize truancy. This is the case in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law this year making truancy a civil offense rather than a Class C misdemeanor, and Colorado, where efforts have been underway to ease up on punishments such as jailing, particularly of truant teens, which simply “should not happen,” Colorado Sen. Chris Holbert, the force behind the effort, has said.

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