School Choice

Public Schools Threaten Parents With Jail Time for Truant Kids

Those tykes are worth big bucks to institutional educators, so if you don't hand 'em over, you might be slapped with fines or even incarceration.


Orange County Public Schools/Facebook

Why should you faithfully deliver your children to the government schools, missing no more than a bare handful of days? Because those tykes are worth big bucks to institutional educators, so if you don't hand 'em over, you might be slapped with fines or jail time.

That's an accurate interpretation of a letter sent out to parents for years by Orange County, California, District Attorney Tony Rauckauckas. But don't take my word for it—read it for yourself. And keep in mind that this represents a national problem of schools claiming greater authority over kids then their parents, whether because they think they know better or just because the kids are so valuable.

One of the main components of the Orange County Gang Reduction and Intervention Partnership (OC-GRIP) "focuses on student school attendance," states Rauckauckas' letter.

Law enforcement, Deputy District Attorneys and District Attorney investigators, along with school staff monitor school attendance, tardies and truancies and conduct Truancy Sweeps and Curfew Sweeps throughout the school year. Students are not allowed to have more than 3 unexcused absences or excessive tardies. The 4th unexcused absence rises to the level of a crime and as the parent or guardian you can be prosecuted and charged with a crime.

That's … pretty tough stuff. Who would threaten parents this way? And why?

"The Orange County District Attorney's Office (OCDA) is in the process of sending out the attached letter to all the schools benefitting from the OC GRIP program, as we have done for the past 11 years," Orange County DA's Office spokesperson Michelle Van Der Linden told me by email. "In addition to academics, social, and emotional relationships also deteriorate when a student is absent. When children miss school they are more likely to become victims of gang crime or fall into gang activity."

Kids not in class might be recruited for gangs, but they certainly cause government schools to lose out on the bounty.

"One of the many benefits that come with improved attendance is increased school funding through the Average Daily Attendance funding from the state," the letter notes.

As the California Legislative Analyst's Office points out, "the department uses attendance data to allocate state funding for various programs," and accordingly requires school districts to report attendance three times per year. If enough warm bodies are on hand, the schools get a full take of the money. If not… Well, an "increase in the number of students who were chronically absent cost the district $45 million in state revenue that year," The74, an education news site, reported of the LA Unified School District in 2017. "During the 2009-2010 term, traditional public schools in San Diego County lost out on at least $102 million in state funding because of absences," KPBS noted in 2011.

Understandably, California school districts want to pen those kids so they can be properly tallied and cashed-in. But maybe not educated. It's not always clear who would teach those kids if they do show up.

"Nearly one out of every four teachers in San Diego County miss 10 or more school days per year, a threshold that triggers [the chronically absent] label," the San Diego Union-Tribune found in 2016. "On the other hand, fewer than one in 10 students were labeled chronically absent in the same data set, which covers the 2013-14 school year."

It might seem that locations other than government buildings have a little educational potential of their own—especially when the government buildings are depopulated by teachers taking advantage of the generous "sick or personal days built into their union contracts." While I don't remember which of my childhood vacations involved promises to the school that my sister and I would make up our work, I know some of them did. There was really no question in my parents' mind that tours of Aztec ruins and the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam were more enriching than sitting in classrooms. We weren't alone in that conceit, since other kids frequently disappeared for the same reason.

But "taking a student out of school to go on a family vacation can also be considered an unexcused absence," scolds DA Rackauckas. "I strongly discourage missing school for vacations during regular school days."

So now government officials are in the business of threatening parents with criminal charges if they structure their calendars to fit family needs rather than those of the state.

Those threats aren't empty either. News stories about prosecutions abound, and Rackauckas boasted in 2015 that "more than 200 families were part of the GRIP truancy sweeps last year and all but six of those families had perfect attendance for the remainder of the school year. That meant up to $35,000 of increased funding for these schools."

Nor is Orange County alone—districts across the state wield the same hammer. "A student only needs to be 30 minutes late for school three times to be labeled a truant and have a letter sent home threatening their parents with prosecution," the Sacramento Bee reported last year. "Being tagged a chronic truant–after missing 10 percent or more of the school year–could mean up to a $2,000 fine and jail time for parents or the student."

California seems especially egregious in this regard, but iron-fisted threats to surrender your kids—or else, feature elsewhere, too. Jacksonville, Florida, aggressively targets parents of truant kids, with widely publicized arrests and up to 60 days of jail time in store.

Using cops and courts as your lever for extracting compliance from families has inherent risks, and inevitable results. Eileen DiNino died in her cell at Pennsylvania's Berks County Prison in 2014 after being sentenced "because she owed the local courts more than $2,000 in fines and fees related to the truancy of two of her teenage sons."

Berks County jailed more than 1,600 parents between 2000 and 2015 because their kids didn't show up to be tallied in a government building, according to The Marshall Project. There are more than 150,000 such incarcerations annually across the country, the organization reports.

And, of course, the weight of the state falls most heavily on those with fewer means to resist. That means the poor and the poorly connected, and "criminalization of truancy often pushes students further away from school, and their families deeper into poverty."

Even in these bureaucratized times, my middle class family and our European and Mexican vacations might escape rebuke more easily than families with fewer resources. But why shouldn't any families who yank their kids from school for time off, or to visit relatives, or to help in a business, be able to act according to their priorities rather than those of the state?

And yes, lots of truancy is undirected and pointless—although escaping the holding pen has a certain point of its own. But what good is accomplished when, as The Marshall Project emphasizes, bringing in cops and courts ultimately further alienates kids from education and further burdens already struggling families? And maybe kills a few people.

But at least the government schools collect their bounties.