SALT LAKE CITY — Should parents face a fine, criminal charges and jail time if their children are chronically absent from school without a valid excuse?
That's a question legislators are grappling with as they consider changes to Utah's law when it comes to truancy in schools.
Current statute makes it a class B misdemeanor for parents 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.
But SB45 would eliminate the penalty and the ability of schools to "direct" parents to meet with them over their child's attendance problems. The bill passed the Senate last week in a 22-5 vote and has just over two weeks to pass the House before the Utah Legislature adjourns.
"It's my opinion that government shouldn't be in the business of taking away people's agency," said Sen. Alvin Jackson, R-Highland, the bill's sponsor. "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. But it doesn't serve the parent or the child if the parent ends up in jail because their kids were not in school."
Despite overwhelming legislative support so far, the bill has sparked partisan debate about how to balance parental rights with those of their children, and where state law stands in protecting those rights.
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, said ensuring that children receive an education, which can be the key to overcoming intergenerational poverty, is "an overwhelming responsibility of the state." And while some circumstances justify a student's short-term absence, the state should step in when students don't have academic support from parents, he said.
"The question is: When do we assume responsibility for those children, and when do we go in with the force of law?" Dabakis said. "I think it's perfectly OK for parents to worry that their kids are missing too much school. I think that's something to aspire to."
Some educators also spoke against the bill, saying it removes the ability for school officials to enforce a critical element to a child's education.
"Attendance has a significant impact on a student's ability to succeed," said Chase Clyde, director of government relations and political action for the Utah Education Association. "Unfortunately, not all parents put education as a priority."
But some lawmakers said the current law is too harsh on parents who are dealing with difficult circumstances out of their control.
"We have child welfare laws that are already sufficient to take care of neglect and abuse," said Draper Republican Sen. Howard Stephenson. "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."
Jackson cited research by the Libertas Institute, which found that in the past decade, 20 parents were booked in jail and 171 were fined for their children's truancy. It's unclear how many of those cases involved charges of neglect or abuse.
Some parents still aren't sure how the current statute applies to them. Wendy Bagley, who voiced her support for the bill last month, said her son's school attendance was a unique struggle.
Bagley's son, Christopher, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was 11, and getting him out of bed was a daily challenge.
"We tried just about everything — from tickling, to water bottle, to medicines the night before — and it was just extremely difficult," Bagley said. "It was not a problem that could be solved within five days, or more."
Eventually, Christopher missed enough first period classes that he was listed as truant. School administrators recognized his unique circumstances and looked for other solutions, but the outcome could have been different if they had been less understanding, Bagley said.
"My concern with our truancy laws is that they assume that seat time equals learning," she said. "Instead, allow the schools to focus on how to individually help the students that need help."