ST. GEORGE — Utah legislators are considering whether parents should face a fine, criminal charges and jail time if their children are excessively absent from school without a valid excuse.
The bill introduced to the Senate proposes Compulsory Education Revisions to Utah law. The bill would eliminate the criminal penalty for a parent of a truant school-age child and the ability of schools to direct parents to meet with them over their child’s attendance problems.
The bill, 2016 SB 45, passed the Senate as introduced Feb. 17 in a 22-5 vote with two senators not voting and has just two days to pass the House before the Utah Legislature adjourns. The House Standing Committee has presented a substitute draft of the bill for consideration by the House and subsequent approval, as amended, by the Senate.
The amendment would allow parents whose children are repeatedly absent from school to be charged with a class C misdemeanor, which carries jail time, as a maximum penalty.
Under current school truancy laws, parents face a class B misdemeanor charge if they fail to enroll their child in school, or if their child is absent five times after getting a warning from school leaders about the student’s attendance. If a student has been absent without a valid excuse at least five times during the school year, a “compulsory education violation” notice is sent to a student’s parent.
After being served with the notice, under the current statute, it is a class B misdemeanor – which carries up to six months of jail time and a fine of $1,000 – for the parent to “intentionally fail to meet with the school authorities” to discuss the “attendance problems” or to “intentionally fail to prevent the school-age child from being absent without a valid excuse five or more times during the remainder of the school year.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, said the government shouldn’t be in the business of taking away people’s agency.
“If we want to encourage folks to take advantage of the public school system, then we need to encourage them, we need to educate them, we need to work with them,” Jackson said on the House floor. “But it doesn’t serve the parent or the child if the parent ends up in jail because their kids were not in school.”
Research by the Libertas Institute found that, in the past decade, 20 parents were booked in jail and 171 were fined for their children’s truancy, Jackson said.
“Childhood education in our country has gone from private and optional to public and mandatory,” according to the Libertas Institute. “However, schools were never intended – and are not equipped – to replace parents. School attendance choices are a parental responsibility. When government imposes criminal sanctions for non-attendance, it is implicitly claiming a right over parental roles that it does not – and should not – have.”
Notwithstanding, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said on the House floor that while some circumstances justify a student’s short-term absence, the state should step in to ensure that children receive an education when students don’t have academic support from their parents.
“There are miserably, slothful, lazy, druggy, detached, over-attached parents across our state,” Dabakis said during the floor debate. “So the question is: When do we assume responsibility for those children? And when do we go in with the force of law?”
“How many children won’t go to school,” Debakis said, “if the state doesn’t have that stick to go into the home and say, ‘you know what, you’ve got to figure it out. You have to figure out how you are going to provide that opportunity for your child to go to school, and we’re going to use whatever means is necessary because that is a principle that all Utahns stand for.’ My sense is we do not want to free up a lot of lazy parents with a get out of jail card free.”
Still, some lawmakers argue the current law is too harsh on parents.
“We have child welfare laws already in place that are sufficient to take care of neglect and abuse,” Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said on the House floor. “We don’t need to have one more punishment for one more parent who’s working two jobs, trying to make ends meet, trying to keep kids in school.”
Stephenson called it “inhumane” and “unconscionable” that parents are actually charged with a crime under the current statute.
“For them to say ‘I think you’re a slothful parent, we’re going to put you in jail,’” Stephenson said, “I think it goes beyond the pale.”
According to the Libertas Institute, the penalty under the current statute is an inappropriate use of criminal justice resources.
“Taxpayers should not be asked to pay for the law enforcement, judicial and incarceration costs associated with imposing criminal penalties on non-attendance so that schools can ensure their budgets are unaffected by changes in attendance,” according to the institute.
Jackson said whether the student has good grades or not, the school’s concern is all about attendance.
“In my opinion, if this is a budget issue that you’ve got to have kids in the seats in order to get your budget,” Jackson said, “then we need to look at how we fund our schools. We’ve got a system that is broken.”
The criminal consequence for the parent was introduced in a 2007 bill by Rep. Eric Hutchings. The bill passed the Legislature unanimously. Previously, the focus of a student’s absence from school was entirely on the child, subjecting children to juvenile detention.
From Southern Utah, Sens. Ralph Okerlund, David Hinkins and Evan Vickers voted in favor of the bill; Sen. Stephen Urquhart did not vote for the bill on third reading, although he did vote favorably during the bill’s second reading in the Senate.
- Full text of substitute bill currently pending: Utah 2016 SB 45 1st Substitute – Compulsory Education Revisions
- Current law – Compulsory Education Requirements – 53A-11-101
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