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Challenge to Missouri school attendance law takes odd turn

Thursday, September 16, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY -- In hearing a challenge to Missouri's compulsory school attendance statute Wednesday, the state Supreme Court did an abrupt about face from disbelief that a parent could reasonably conclude that her daughter's 60 percent attendance rate complied with the law to bewilderment that the mitigating fact of the child's pregnancy during the period in question was not raised at the parent's trial.

Brenda Self claims the law, which holds parents criminally liable for failing to ensure their children regularly attend school, is unconstitutionally vague. A Pemiscot County judge in October 2003 found Self guilty of a misdemeanor after Self's daughter, then age 15, was absent from Caruthersville Accelerated Middle School 40 times over a period of 102 school days during the 2002-2003 term.

Assistant public defender Garrett Anderson, Self's attorney, told the high court the law doesn't define regular attendance and therefore fails to provides parents any notice as to how many missed days constitutes a violation. The lack of a definitive standard in the statute, Anderson said, could result in arbitrary enforcement.

Initially, the court appeared to take a dim view of Anderson's argument.

"Whatever conceivable definition you have of regular attendance, surely you couldn't say that missing 40 days out of 102 is regular attendance," said Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr., whose sentiment was echoed by other judges.

As oral arguments progressed, however, it came to light that the girl's poor attendance resulted from her pregnancy and that 23 of the absences were excused. For reasons that are unclear, those facts apparently were not admitted as evidence before Associate Circuit Judge Byron Luber, who gave Self a suspended 15-day jail sentence pending successful completion of two years of unsupervised probation.

The compulsory attendance law provides an exemption for students who are physically incapacitated.

"The statute doesn't apply if you have a good excuse," said Judge Michael Wolff. Several judges indicated that pregnancy would appear to qualify as an excuse.

Anderson said the girl made up the lost time in summer school and completed her grade.

Although the Caruthersville School District's policy is that 10 or more absences may result in the matter being forwarded to the local prosecutor for criminal charges, not all school systems have specific policies. Therefore, Anderson argued, what one district would consider illegal conduct might not be so construed by another district, leading to uneven enforcement.

Under questioning from the bench, assistant attorney general Shaun Mackelprang, who was defending the validity of the law, conceded that a school district could conceivably pursue criminal charges if a child was absent just five times or even once.

"But that would be extreme," Mackelprang said, adding that it would likely be difficult to prove to a judge or jury that so few absences rose to the level of criminal conduct.

The Supreme Court will issue a ruling at a later date.

The case is State of Missouri v. Brenda Self.