Excusing Absences: Do Parents Need a Reason?

The following op-ed was published today by the Daily Herald.

The opportunity presents itself to take your family on a week long dream vacation to Europe. Though this trip will provide your children invaluable educational opportunities, it will cause them to miss a week of school.

Are you even allowed to excuse your children from school for that length of time?

Consider a different scenario, where one of your children has been gifted with amazing athletic ability, to the extent that top college programs are actively seeking them out. The only problem is that the rigors of athletic training and competition schedules cause your child to frequently miss certain classes. Can he or she continue to pursue a college scholarship?

Is there anything you can do to excuse your child from class?

Finally, imagine if your child found school so emotionally distressing that he or she would rather die than go to class. Bullying, depression, and extreme embarrassment have become a way of life for your child. They begin to miss school because of numerous doctors visits and being checked in and out of medical care.

Do you have the ability and authority to excuse your child from school during prolonged stressful situations?

Too often in Utah school districts, parents who ask these questions are told incorrect information. With the exception of a case like high school sports (raising the attractiveness of the high school for stand-out athletes), schools often prevent parents from excusing absences for their own children. If you can find a friendly ear of a school or district administrator, you might be able to succesfully make your case. If not, you’re often out of luck.

But is this an inappropriate arrangement? Are parents the primary stewards of their children’s education or is the government primarily in control?

The answer, according to Utah’s constitution, is a firm “yes.”

Schools want to maximize attendance in order to continue to receive the funds they believe they need to operate, but there must be a balance within the law that not only protects children, but recognizes the rights of caring parents to determine their child’s educational path.

Alpine School District (ASD) offers a positive example for the rest of the state.  Its policy for dealing with absences states that “a parent or legal guardian of a student may excuse an absence for reasons they deem necessary.” It doesn’t end there—the education success of the student is protected as well; “extreme cases of students becoming educationally at-risk,” if not corrected, “may limit the ability to excuse absences.”

With the above policy, ASD has struck an appropriate balance between the constitutional authority of parents and the government’s mandate to educate children.

Unfortunately, even within ASD, individual schools and district administrators struggle to hold true to their own policy.

Libertas Institute published an interview last year with a parent affected by the lack of adherence to this policy. Diane’s daughter Sarah was struggling with bullying at school and the emotional distress was a constant weight upon her mental state. This led to several attempts at taking her own life.

Diane, like any good parent, sought ways to remedy the dangerous situation her child was in and she decided to place Sarah in a Home and Hospital program. This was deemed inadequate by the school district; Diane and her daughter were sent to juvenile court for truancy.

Diane was not informed of her right to excuse her daughter from school during this trying time and was instead thrust into a multi-year legal battle with costs and stress their family couldn’t afford. While circumstances revolving around sports or vacations taken by affluent families can usually be easily resolved by school or district administrators, there is too often a harsh reality of inflexibility for families struggling with mental illness.

As public schools face the challenges of high-stakes testing, school grading, strings attached to federal funding, and other programs and policies, the burdens shouldn’t be passed to parents of struggling children. Every district should have policies in place like ASD and administrators should inform parents of these policies and respect the exercise of their parental rights.

As districts adopt policies that return parents to their rightful place as stewards of their child’s schooling, every student can be protected and receive a quality education.