It is important to understand your legal obligation as a parent to make sure your children actually go to school. Sometimes, people don’t take that obligation very seriously.  Maybe you, or your co-parent, think your kids missing some school days isn’t a big deal. Well, you’d be wrong. The state takes school attendance very seriously and some parents are finding their ability to adequately parent being questioned or legally challenged. So, it’s good to understand your obligations and what the state is requiring schools to do to address repeated absences.

Get your kids to school, it’s the law!

Educating your children is not an option, it is a duty compelled by Washington State laws.  “All parents in this state of any child eight years of age and under eighteen years of age shall cause such child to attend the public (private or home) school of the district in which the child resides and such child shall have a responsibility to and therefore shall attend for the full time when such school may be in session.” If a parent enrolls a child who is six or seven years of age in a public school, the child is required to attend and that parent has the responsibility to ensure the child attends for the full time that school is in session.

The above law was strengthened by the Legislature’s adoption of “Becca Bill”, RCW 28A.225.030, “not later than the seventh unexcused absence by a child within any month during the current school year or not later than the tenth unexcused absence during the current school year the school district shall file a petition and supporting affidavit for civil action with the Juvenile Court”.

How do schools and courts enforce school attendance laws?

Our laws and courts are setup to work with children and parents to avoid the Juvenile Court intervention. After the first unexcused absence a school official will contact the parent in writing or by telephone and inform the parent of the consequences of additional unexcused absences. After the third unexcused absence in a month a meeting is scheduled with the parent and child to analyze the causes for the absences. The school then takes data-informed steps to reduce and eliminate absences.

After five unexcused absences in one month a mandatory conference is scheduled for the parent and child with a school official, school counselor, and nurse or social worker to discuss the barriers preventing the child from properly attending school. Reasonable and affirmative steps have to be taken to resolve the recurring problem. Every effort is taken to improve the child’s school attendance before filing a petition with the Juvenile Court for legal action.

When a petition for truancy is filed with the Juvenile Court, the Court “stays” (pausing the court process) the prosecution of the petition, and refers to the Community Truancy Board for resolution. The Board is comprised of individuals that are trained in identifying barriers to a child’s regular school attendance, and directing them to the available programs to resolve these barriers. The case is returned to the Juvenile Court for legal action if the parent and child fail to comply with the recommendations of Truancy Board.

The action in Juvenile Court is still a “Civil” not “Criminal” proceeding. Courts will continue to work with children and parents to pursue alternatives to public school attendance. If these alternative education options aren’t complied with, as a last resort, the Juvenile Court will place the child in detention (juvenile jail).

Any parent found to have violated the provisions of the Mandatory School Attendance laws can be fined $25 for each day of the child’s unexcused absences.

What does all this mean to you and how might it apply to your situation?

Whenever you are the parent who is responsible for getting your kids to school, make sure you actually get them there. Of course, there are excused absences for illness and doctor appointments and such. But be careful not to abuse the few days that may be excused. Set some guidelines for when your children will be allowed to stay home ill, such as if they have a fever, and try to hold yourself to those rules. Don’t allow your children to stay home from school just because they don’t feel like going, no matter how convincing they might be.

If the person you are co-parenting with is not fulfilling their obligation to get the kids to school, your parenting skills will also be scrutinized. If the school’s concerns are not adequately addressed, it is possible for the State to decide to place the children into foster care. Do not allow concerns about absences to go unaddressed. If you neglect the problem, the Courts can consider you to be just as much to blame. These situations can escalate into you losing guardianship of your children. Intervene, if you must, to make sure they are attending school appropriately.

Schools have become much more critical of unexcused absences. Serious legal steps can be taken if the school feels that parents aren’t doing everything reasonably possible to limit unexcused absences. Plus, what used to be considered excused no longer is, like family vacation days. So, it is important to manage your children’s time off from school, no matter who technically has custody on any given day. If the other parent has trouble getting kids to school, then offer to help. Work together as parents to make school attendance a priority. But, if that does not work, then it may be time to get an attorney involved to help you take charge and get school attendance back on track.