IS YOUR CHILD HABITUALLY TRUANT DUE TO THEIR SPECIAL NEEDS?

If your child is habitually truant due to their special needs, you need to be aware of the February, 2018  Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case "Millis Public Schools v. M.P. & others".

Stressed Truant Student

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently heard a case involving M.P., a 15-year old girl with multiple diagnoses including OCD, PTSD, anxiety disorder, autism and a severe bladder condition; who was referred to the juvenile court as a child requiring assistance (CRA) on the grounds that she was habitually truant by her school district, Millis Public Schools.

M.P. was offered several alternative educational learning opportunities. Some of these alternatives included attending an online high school, a therapeutic program – with a shortened day, private tutoring at home, private tutoring at the library, and finally a special education day school. M.P. failed to consistently attend any of these alternative educational settings. At all times relevant, M.P. expressed her desire to attend school and to do well in school. She often expressed disappointment when she was unable to attend. M.P. and her family fought the CRA referral on the grounds that she was unable to attend school not because of her willfulness but due to her medical issues.

Under the children requiring assistance (CRA) statute, a child “willfully fails to attend school” if the child’s repeated failure to attend school arises from reasons portending delinquent behavior. CRA petitions can be filed where a child who is of compulsory school attendance age is “habitually truant.” The statute allows the juvenile court to change a child’s custody by placing them in the home of relative or an out-of-home placement if the judge determines the child “willfully failed to attend school for more than eight school days in a quarter.” The purpose of the CRA statute is well meaning. It has been established by multiples studies, that children who are not in school are more likely to get caught up in behaviors that may lead to delinquency and ultimately involvement in the court system. Allowing school districts to identify students who are habitually absent, is meant to help these students get support and hopefully help them prevent making negative life choices. 

Unfortunately, the CRA statute is frequently used when students with disabilities cannot attend school due to their emotional, social, medical and/or academic conditions. These students are often referred to the juvenile court system instead of steps being taken to support them and their needs. Many of these students with special needs are removed from their homes as a result of the CRA referral, which further exacerbates their condition instead of helping to alleviate some of their issues.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a juvenile court judge can only find that a child is truant if the child is absent from school “purposefully, such that his or her behavior arises from reasons portending delinquent behavior.” To put it another way, the Supreme Judicial Court found that a child’s absence must be more than “merely voluntary or intentional,” the juvenile court must look “into a student’s purpose in missing school.” The Court emphasized that “a finding of willfulness is a fact-based inquiry that will depend on the circumstances of each case … [E]ach child’s purpose or reasons for missing school should be examined individually in order to determine whether the absences are willful beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Millis Public Schools vs M.P. and others is important because it supports children who cannot attend school because they have a mental or medical illness and helps these children avoid the court system and allows them to focus on their well-being and health care needs.