Area woman challenges law on school attendance

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A Pemiscot County woman is challenging the constitutionality of a state law that holds parents criminally liable for failing to ensure their children regularly attend school.

In October 2003, Brenda Self was convicted of a misdemeanor after her 15-year-old daughter was absent 40 days during the 2003-2004 term at Caruthersville Accelerated Middle School. Pemiscot County Associate Circuit Judge Byron Luber sentenced her to 15 days in the county jail, which was suspended pending completion of two years of unsupervised probation.

The Missouri Supreme Court has agreed to hear Self's appeal of the conviction on Sept. 15.

Self contends Missouri's compulsory school attendance law is unconstitutionally vague in that it doesn't specify how many absences can trigger criminal charges. The law says the parents or guardians of a child between the ages of 7 and 16 "shall cause the child to attend regularly" a public, private or home school and may face criminal charges for failing to do so.

The Caruthersville School District's student handbook states that the county prosecuting attorney may be notified and potentially file criminal charges if a student is absent 10 or more times in a school year.

In written arguments submitted to the high court on Self's behalf, assistant public defender Garrett Anderson says the vagueness of the law can lead to arbitrary enforcement.

"This ambiguity leaves the definition of this penal statute in the hands of school district employees," Anderson wrote. "No ordinary reasonable person could ever read [the law] and discern exactly what act is being prohibited."

Assistant attorney general Shaun Mackelprang counters that the law, which dates to at least 1963, is clear and supports the long-standing state policy that parents have an obligation to educate their children.

"Compulsory school attendance is not a novel concept in the United States, and it has long been enforced by parents, principals, teachers, truant officers, and a host of other people who are charged in one way or another with the care, custody and control of children during the day," Mackelprang wrote. "Indeed, it has long been recognized that compulsory education laws are vital to our society."

Mackelprang notes the 40 days Self's daughter missed took place over 102 school days, meaning the child had an attendance rate of only about 60 percent during that period. Mackelprang says any reasonable parent would conclude such a rate couldn't be called regular attendance.

The case is State of Missouri v. Brenda Self.

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