Truancy Among Teens

Children have different rights and obligations under the law than adults. The law recognizes that children, or juveniles, are still developing, and until they reach adult age they must comply with laws that are slightly different than those which apply to adults.

One of the legal duties that the law imposes on a juvenile -- a person under the age of 18 -- is the requirement to attend school every day it is in session. A child who does not attend school on a regular basis is considered truant. Truancy is a juvenile offense that can lead to various consequences for the juvenile as well as his or her parents or legal guardian.

Missing School

States have different definitions of what it means to be truant. Typically, a student is not considered truant until he or she misses a specified number of school days without a valid excuse. For example, a state may define truancy as missing three full days of school in a single month, or 10 full days of school in a single year. States may also consider a child truant if the child is late without an excuse. For example, a child who is more than 30 minutes late for any class three or more times in a single month may be deemed truant.

Parental Permission

Even if a child is habitually absent from school, the child is not truant unless those absences occur without the permission of the child's parent or legal guardian. For example, a state may establish that four unexcused absences in a month is enough for child to be truant. However, if that child is kept out of school for five days by the child's parents because of a family emergency, those absences do not count in calculating truancy.

Truancy Notifications

When a child is absent from school, it typically falls to the school to first contact the child and the child's parents or guardian to notify them of the absence. As part of this process the school district typically notifies the parents or guardian in writing, by phone, or in person, and may send a truancy officer or school official to the child's home.

Truancy Meeting

When a teen is truant the teen's school will often hold a meeting where the child, the child's parents, teachers, and school administrators will discuss the truancy problem and determine what actions they can take to solve it. If the truancy problem persists, the school will notify the juvenile court of the problem by filing a truancy petition. The petition notifies the court of what has happened and asks it to take action in the case.

Juvenile Justice System

When a juvenile violates a law, the juvenile is dealt with through the juvenile justice system and not the criminal justice system. A teen may be sent before a juvenile court after the school's efforts to reduce truancy have failed, though when this happens differs between states. Once before a juvenile judge, the court holds a hearing and can, upon finding the teen truant, impose a range of penalties.


Juvenile courts have much greater discretion when handling cases and can impose a wide range of punishments on both teens and the teen's parent or legal guardian. The kinds of penalties given differ widely between cases and states. The court will issue the penalties it deems appropriate, and a teen who violates the court's orders may face additional penalties

  • Additional school. A juvenile court can order a truant student to attend after-school, weekend, or summer sessions to make up for the school the child missed. The court may also order the student to enroll in an alternate education course, a skill center or trade school, public education courses, dropout prevention courses, or other related programs.
  • Drug testing. A court may order the teen to submit to drug and alcohol testing, especially if drug and alcohol abuse is present in the home or if substance abuse problems are present in the case. The court may also order the teen to attend drug and alcohol education or rehabilitation courses.
  • Counseling. A court may also order a teen into psychological testing and counseling. The teen may have to attend individual counseling, group counseling, or attend family counseling with parents or guardians.
  • Probation. Probation is also possible in truancy cases. A court can order the truant teen to regularly report to a probation officer for a period of 6 months or more, or until the teen reaches the age of 18. Probation can also require random drug tests, wearing a tracking bracelet, being confined to home when not at school or work, or other conditions.
  • Detention. In some situations a juvenile court may confine the teen to a juvenile detention center, work camp, group home, or similar facility. Detention penalties are not common in truancy cases, though they are possible. The court may order detention on the weekends, for a specific length of time, or a combination of detention measures.
  • Parent or guardian penalties. A juvenile court may impose several penalties against the parent or guardian of a truant teen. Common penalties include fines, attending parenting education courses, or attending family counseling. A juvenile court can also transfer a juvenile case to an adult court if the court finds the parents have violated the law, such as when neglect or abuse is present.

Talk to a Lawyer

Juveniles, and their parents or legal guardians, have the right to be represented by an attorney any time they face any type of action in the juvenile justice system. While the juvenile system allows courts far more leeway than the criminal justice system does, an attorney is the only person who can provide you with legal advice if you're facing a teen truancy situation. An attorney experience with the local juvenile courts, prosecutors, and judges can provide you with advice based on both experience and the juvenile laws in your state. Truancy can lead to serious consequences for both the teen and the teen's parents or legal guardian. You should never proceed in any truancy case without a criminal defense attorney at your side.

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