Did your child miss 90 minutes of school this year? Illinois’ truancy law could put you in jail

Jeffrey Schwab

Jeffrey Schwab is a senior attorney with the Liberty Justice Center.

Jeffrey Schwab
August 30, 2015

Did your child miss 90 minutes of school this year? Illinois’ truancy law could put you in jail

Is criminally charging the parents of a truant child an appropriate way to handle missing class?

In the Land of Lincoln, missing school can come with misdemeanor charges.

If you’ve been given notice that your child has been absent from school without a valid cause and knowingly and willfully permitted your child to continue to miss school, you can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor in Illinois, which can result in either 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $500 or both.

Illinois law requires children ages six to 17 to attend public school, with some exceptions, including children attending a private or parochial school or children being homeschooled where certain requirements are met.

A child may not be absent from a public school without valid cause for 5 percent or more of the previous 180 regular attendance days, or 9 days. Prior to 2011, Illinois law prohibited a child from being absent from a public school for 10 percent or more of the previous 180 regular attendance days, or 18 days. Valid cause is defined as illness, observance of a religious holiday, death in the immediate family or a family emergency. Because absences are based on the previous 180 regular attendance days, and not the current school year, it’s possible that a child could be in violation of the law in the first few days of a new school year.

How are missed days calculated? According to St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty, “For a student to be counted present for the entire day, they must be there for at least 300 minutes. If a school day is 305 minutes and they are five minutes tardy, they miss a half day.”

That means if your child is five minutes late 18 times in a school year, you could go to jail, even though your child would have missed only 90 minutes of school and likely little to no instructional time.

But regardless of the threshold for truancy, is criminally charging the parents of a truant child an effective or appropriate way to handle missing school?

Imprisoning the parent of a truant child or requiring her to pay a hefty fine often only exacerbates the problem, particularly for lower-income and single-parent families.

The effect of criminally charging the parent of a child who is truant is less stability for the child. Taking a parent out of a child’s life for 30 days simply creates more turmoil in the child’s life, which could lead to more missed school.

And even if the charges are eventually dropped, or the parent is acquitted, there are costs associated with being charged in the first place. For example, missing a court date can lead to a warrant for the arrest of the charged parent. For a single, working parent, having to take time off to go to court can be problematic since it could be difficult to schedule or may reduce their earnings.

Unpaid fines can add up and lead to jail time, again putting the child’s life in more turmoil. A parent who has a criminal record simply because his or her child missed school will likely have a more difficult time finding a job.

Consider Christina Miller, a St. Clair County mother of three, who was criminally charged under the truancy law last year when her 15-year-old son had six unexcused absences and 32 tardies. Although her son missed less than nine full days of school, the number of times her son was late to school added up to more than nine unexcused absences.

Miller’s son suffers from migraines and hypertension. The medicine he takes for the migraines makes him drowsy, sometimes causing him to miss or be late for school. Miller says taking her son to the doctor to obtain a doctor’s note for the school when he has a migraine is prohibitively expensive.

Miller is simply trying to take care of her three children, handle her son’s migraines and find a job. Charging her with a crime because her son has missed school, requiring her to spend time and money she doesn’t have defending herself, simply makes things more difficult for her and may make it more likely her son will miss school.

For many parents, including Miller, the process of being charged with a crime because their child missed too much school makes life harder for the parent and the child and does nothing to make it more likely the child will miss less school.

Some, such as St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly, argue that fighting truancy is important as a preventative measure because truancy often results in kids later committing crimes as adults. But if the concern is that Illinois is sending too many people to prison, it’s strange to assert that the way to prevent kids from committing crimes and ending up in prison as adults is to send their parents to prison when the kids don’t go to school.

Making a child’s family life more unstable certainly only adds to any likelihood that the child will end up in prison as an adult.

Making truancy a crime for either kids or their parents is ineffective. If the goal of criminal truancy laws is to help get kids back in school, then putting parents in jail or requiring them to pay a fine will likely just make it harder for the parents to ensure their child goes to school.

Kids miss school because of extraordinary events, family problems or because the institutional structure of the public school is unable to adapt to meet a particular child’s needs, such as in the case of Christina Miller’s son. In these cases, punishing parents for their child’s truancy is not only ineffective but unfair.

Fortunately, in some states, there is movement away from the criminalization of truancy. Illinois should join that movement and remove truancy as a criminal violation.

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