Missouri Supreme Court hears arguments on appeal of parents jailed for truancy

Empty Classroom Desks
Photo: Jeisson Ortiz/Pexels

(The Center Square) – The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday heard two cases regarding the state’s law regarding a parent’s responsibility to ensure their children attend public school once enrolled.

Both cases involve single mothers, one of a kindergartner and one of a first grader, who were convicted in Laclede County Circuit Court. Both were found guilty because they “knowingly failed to cause a child under her control or custody to attend a required academic program on a regular basis,” according to the statute.

Ellen Flottman, the attorney for the mothers and a Missouri Appellate Central District defender, argued Missouri’s law regarding attendance is “unconstitutionally vague” and violates the due process of law, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

Both children missed 15 days of school. Documents, letters to the families and testimony showed the Lebanon School District attempted to assist the families.

“They put these single moms in jail,” Flottman told the court. “They put these single moms in jail and the first notice they had that they were going to be prosecuted was when they were charged.”

The school district handbook uses a benchmark of 90% attendance as “regular” and absences due to illness aren’t counted.

Shaun Mackelprang, an assistant attorney general representing the state of Missouri against defendants Caitlyn Cordell Williams and Tamarae Lynn LaRue, said the school district’s handbook repeatedly emphasizes students should be in school each day that it’s in session.

Williams was sentenced to seven days in jail and it ran concurrently with a sentence she was already serving. LaRue was found guilty and sentenced to 15 days in jail, but it was suspended and she was placed on probation.

Mackelprang countered Flottman’s argument that parents who take their children out of school to go to Disney World aren’t prosecuted.

“They can do that and I think they do that at their own peril because they could potentially be prosecuted,” Mackelprang said. “But so does anybody who drives 36 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone. You do that at your own peril for being pulled over for speeding.”

Mackelprang also said he left a penny atop his desk during arguments and if it was taken, the person who stole it could be prosecuted.

“Mr. Mackelprang talks about whether you can steal a penny or you can drive 36 miles an hour, but they put these single moms in jail,” Flottman said.

Under questioning from Chief Justice Paul Wilson, Flottman stated she was worried her arguments would stray into the area of ignorance of the law.

“But I’m not because the state still has to prove that she knew the meaning of the word ‘regularly’ and we can’t even agree on what that means,” Flottman said.

Wilson repeated that the case centered on whether the statute was violated and not the actions of the lower court. Flottman said the mothers were misled by the handbook’s information on absences being excused or not and the requirement of a doctor’s note after 12 absences.

“And does that mean that the first eleven absences aren’t absences?” Wilson asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” Flottman said. “I think that’s how I would read it.”

Joe Mueller
Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.

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