Utah children stuck in the truancy trap

The following op-ed, written by our director of policy Michael Melendez, was published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Imagine if your child found school so emotionally distressing that they would rather die than go to class. Bullying, depression, and extreme embarrassment are just a few of the situations that too many of Utah’s school children endure.

As a parent, you would do all in your power to help and comfort your child, even if it meant changing the environment in which their schooling takes place. Most likely you would investigate several options that “appear” to be available to you: counseling, changing schools, or even homeschooling.

But then imagine if the school district and the court system sought to compel you to keep your child in the school where the problems began. What would you do if your child was forced into an environment that was demonstrably harmful to his or her well being? Surely the law would protect you and your family from such a situation.

Unfortunately, that may not be entirely true.

Sadly, this is the reality that parents throughout Utah face on a regular basis. Truancy laws, combined with perverse financial incentives for “seat time” in schools, have ruined the lives of many families. Utah’s government usurps—and thus undermines—the role of parents by criminalizing both them and their children for failure to attend class, despite any emotional or psychological impediments the child may have.

Many of these cases follows an eerily similar path filled with obstructions that are carefully placed in the paths of caring parents. In some cases, parents attempt to remove their child from public school in order to homeschool them in an environment that would be more conducive to their mental health. Utah law clearly gives them this right.

But school districts and county prosecutors file truancy charges, moving the matter to a juvenile court where judges have enormous power to levy whatever judgment they see fit. Motions of being held in contempt of court inevitably follow (since the struggling child cannot or will not remain in the toxic environment that is harming them) which carry criminal consequences for both parent and child. Soon the family is left with few options, heavy fines draining their usually limited resources, and the needs of their child still not being addressed.

Libertas Institute recently published an interview with one such parent affected by these truancy laws. 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.

In vain attempts to rectify the situation and escape unhelpful punishments by the court, Diane filed an affidavit to homeschool Sarah as allowed under Utah law. But the judge ordered the school district to disregard the affidavit and ordered Sarah to continue to attend school in an environment that had harmed her. After nearly a year, their case is still being fought in court.

Earlier this year, state senator Al Jackson sought to reduce the severity of truancy laws to bring relief to these suffering families by proposing Senate Bill 45. Though this bill was passed by both the House and the Senate, it failed to reach the Governor’s desk because the two bodies could not agree on a last minute amendment made to the bill. There is still hope, however, because the bill will be brought back to the legislature next year by a new sponsor and, with a bit of hard work, Utah parents who fall into this pit of government bureaucracy will no longer face criminal punishment for absences.

As public schools face the challenges of high-stakes testing, school grading, federal funding contingencies, and other new programs, the burdens shouldn’t be passed to parents of struggling children. Yes, schools want to ensure attendance compliance 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.

It’s time to end strict adherence to compulsory education and return parents to their rightful place as stewards of their child’s schooling.