(NewsNation) — The Missouri Supreme Court upheld a state law requiring school attendance after two Lebanon, Missouri, parents were sentenced to jail following excessive absences by their children.
Court documents indicated that during the 2021-2022 academic year, a first-grade student missed nine days of school, while a kindergartner missed seven days without any explanation.
The two mothers, Caitlyn Williams and Tamarae Larue, took their case to the Supreme Court, arguing that the state law mandating “regular” attendance lacks clarity.
The state’s compulsory attendance law requires children to attend school on a “regular basis.” The mothers appealed, arguing that this requirement is constitutionally unclear.
However, the court disagreed, ruling against them in a 6-0 vote, with one justice not participating.
“Given the notice provided to each parent and that each parent was in control of their young child, evidence existed to support the inference that each parent knowingly failed to cause their child to attend school on a regular basis,” the court wrote in a statement.
The Missouri Supreme Court upheld their misdemeanor convictions.
Williams received a one-week jail sentence for her first grader’s attendance, while Tamarae Larue was sentenced to 15 days in jail for her kindergartner’s attendance. Larue later agreed to serve on a two-year probation.
The Lebanon School District told NewsNation that it’s required by law to report suspected cases of educational neglect. Reporting truancy to authorities is a final step taken after multiple notifications and meetings, and it is treated with utmost seriousness.
According to district policy, parents are initially informed when a student accrues six absences or when their attendance rate falls below 90%.
“Nobody wants to report a family to the authorities, right? I’ve never worked with a school district where that was their aim,” said Dr. Karen Baptiste, a former teacher. “However, they are also obligated to ensure the safety and well-being of that child.”
The law has received some criticism.
Family law attorney Susan Guthrie questions if this law truly benefits children, suggesting removing single moms from their kids isn’t justifiable when the issue is the children aren’t in the classroom.
“I don’t know that jailing parents — and these were both single moms, I want to point out — taking them out of their households and away from their children, when the issue is the children attending school,” Guthrie said. “I think the ends are not justified by the needs.”
Recent data indicates a growing trend of chronic absenteeism among students.
Research from Attendance Works, which promotes better policy and practice around school attendance, reveals that the number of students missing 10% or more school days in a year doubled since the pandemic.
According to a Stanford University Analysis, about 6.5 million students were chronically absent, meaning they missed more than 10% of the 2021-2022 school year.
This increase can be attributed to health concerns, transportation issues, housing insecurity and other underlying causes.
“I definitely will encourage schools to explore the root causes of why the student is absent so much and find out what those reasons are,” Baptiste said.
The Supreme Court acknowledges that exceptions to the attendance law exist when a parent communicates to administrators that their child is facing medical or physical challenges preventing classroom attendance.
Despite efforts, NewsNation was unable to establish contact with the mothers. An attorney representing one of them declined to provide a statement.
NewsNation also attempted to reach out to the district attorney to inquire about the annual number of similar cases but didn’t receive a response.
The Lebanon School District serves around 4,500 students, and census data indicates that 16% of the district’s population lives at or below the poverty line.