Lawyers examine truancy in Tennessee; rule reforms urged

photo A school bus.

More than 264,000 students were considered truant in Tennessee last year. And the increasing numbers have some University of Tennessee law faculty and students calling for reforms of state rules governing the offense.

While the state has some clear guidelines on truancy, school districts do not enforce violations consistently, said law student Megan Swain.

"The way the law is, a lot is left up to school districts," she said. "Even in the districts, they're not enforced uniformly."

Dean Hill Rivkin, a professor in the University of Tennessee College of Law, oversees the school's Education Law Practicum, which for the past four years has examined truancy laws, data and enforcement across the state.

The practicum represented about two dozen students in truancy cases over the course of three years. Legal representation, unlike with criminal offenses, is not guaranteed under Tennessee law for those accused of being truant, which is a status offense in Tennessee. That is, it's illegal only because of the age of an offender.

"We think every juvenile ought to have a lawyer because the consequences can be pretty severe," Rivkin said.

He's part of a working group examining statewide rule changes with the state board of education. In a presentation to Hamilton County teachers and social workers Monday, Rivkin and his students advocated for local programs that involve parents early, explore what's causing students to miss school and provide some alternative education programming.

State law defines truancy as missing five or more days of school "without adequate excuse."

But Rivkin said schools and courts are not always aware of the problems at the root of a student's attendance behavior.

Presenters pointed to one of their cases, in which a student missed many days of school and eventually was served with a juvenile court petition for truancy. The judge told her she could be jailed, but never questioned why she was out of school so much. Only after the practicum began representing her and exploring her case did officials discover the girl had been raped, which caused her to suffer from trauma, lose weight, experience frequent sickness and stop seeing her friends.

Prosecutors dismissed the case against her after the discovery, but UT presenters said it's just one example of why schools should explore the reasons kids may be missing class. The group is urging the state to add bullying, mental health problems, chronic health issues, lack of transportation and homelessness as valid reasons for absences.

Pam Thompson, who teaches alternative behavior classes and in-school suspension students at East Lake Elementary, said the number of truant students across the state, and particularly in Hamilton, was alarming.

"This data suggests we're not doing well," she said. "All of our children need to be in school some place."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree or 423-757-6249.