For the past few years, we have been pointing out through op-eds and interviews the problems with criminalizing parents for their children’s non-attendance at government schools and how many parents are charged with crimes for their child’s truancy.
In 2016 and 2017 we attempted to decriminalize truancy by eliminating the class B misdemeanor offenses for parents in the state’s compulsory education law. Unfortunately due to a variety of circumstances, both pieces of legislation died before final passage.
This year, Libertas Institute took a different approach to the issue. As highlighted in the past, the vast majority of cases where parents find themselves stuck in an unjust juvenile court setting stem from a student’s struggle with mental illness of some sort. So instead of targeting truancy as a whole, we decided to target mental illness specifically.
State law previously allowed parents to excuse a child for a variety of reasons, including illness. These “valid excuses” do not count toward truancy.
But the law did not clarify that illness is not merely physical; many students struggle with profound mental health challenges that may, on certain days, require they be absent from school. And many schools have interpreted the “illness” excuse in law as pertaining only to physical illness, thus punishing students whose illnesses did not manifest the same way.
This idea resulted in House Bill 234, sponsored by Representative Jefferson Moss, which amended the law to clarify that a valid excuse for illness can be for “physical or mental illness.” With the bill’s unanimous passage, parents whose children have a bad day due to anxiety, depression, temptations of suicide, or other mental health challenges now have the legal right to excuse them from compulsory education for that day.
Without clear protections for parents and students, overzealous school administrators and juvenile court judges can legally exploit these families who are already in stressful circumstances. Legislation like HB 234 helps turn the tide back to giving parents ultimate stewardship over their children.