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Supreme Court hears cases of mothers jailed after kids missed school

The Missouri Supreme Court is weighing the point at which a child’s repeated absences from school can add up to a jail sentence for the parent.

The court on May 24 heard arguments in two cases from Laclede County in which mothers were jailed for violating Missouri’s compulsory school attendance law during the 2021-22 school year. Caitlyn Williams was given seven days in jail after her first-grade daughter missed 15 days of school. Tamarae LaRue was given probation in lieu of a 15-day sentence after her son missed 15 full days and three half days of kindergarten.

Missouri’s law makes it a class C misdemeanor for parents who have enrolled children ages 5 to 7 in public school to fail to “cause such child to attend the academic program on a regular basis.” Ellen Flottman, an appellate public defender for the two women, argued that the word “regular” is vague, giving no guidance on the point at which desultory attendance becomes a crime.

“I think the state’s position is anti-parent,” she said.

Shaun Mackelprang, the assistant attorney general who defended both convictions, denied that charge, responding that the compulsory attendance law “certainly is pro-education.”

The cases, Mackelprang said, present a “question of enduring interest to children across the state of Missouri and maybe across the nation: Do I have to go to school every day?”

“Yeah,” he said. “You have to go to school every day school is in session.”

Over what was essentially an hour-long argument that encompassed both cases, the judges debated whether the law’s wording was, as Judge Zel M. Fischer put it, “intentionally a design to incorporate local customs,” such as agricultural needs or the start of deer season.

Flottman argued that such considerations showed the arbitrary way in which the attendance law was enforced.

“The students that take a day off to go deer hunting or the parents that take their kids out of school for a week in October to go to Disneyworld aren’t being prosecuted for this,” she said.

But Judge Mary R. Russell noted evidence that the children in the two cases were falling behind as a result of the missed school days.

“Doesn’t that make sense why you would be enforcing the policy against students in those situations?” she asked.

Flottman responded schools were free to set policies, such as the Lebanon School District’s requirement that students attend at least 90 percent of the time. But that standard is not an element of the law, she said.

Chief Justice Paul C. Wilson appeared to agree.

“A lot of this discussion is whether we think this is a good statute or whether we would have brought the case, neither which ought to be the ground of the decision,” he said.

Mackelprang said parents who keep their kids out of school, even for benign reasons, are like drivers who exceed the speed limit by 1 mph or thieves who take a single penny: While they might not expect to face any consequences, they know their actions violate the law.

“The fact that something might seem de minimus or small isn’t a reason to invalidate a law,” he said.

The cases are State v. Williams, SC99719, and State v. LaRue, SC99823.

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