Indiana Law Jails Parents for Child School Absences

How does your state punish “educational neglect”?

Educators will try just about any creative means to get students to learn. Recently tales from New York and our nation’s capital told of schools who pay cold hard cash to students with top grades. But, of course, students have to be in the classroom to learn in the first place.

Indiana schools are skipping the incentive route and trying tough love to encourage students to come to class. Their target is parents, who the state believes should be exercising their authority over their children in a positive manner, and will likely respond better to penalties for non-compliance.

But will the threat of jail time cause parents to send their children to school? One woman, Samantha O’Neal, faces up to three years in prison after being charged with a felony for letting her fifth-grade son miss ten days of school, six of them unexcused. Furthermore, he was tardy 28 times, and often came to class unwashed and smelling poorly, according to an article in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.

The county prosecutor made the call to press charges in this particular case, though does not do so in many cases. The concept of “educational neglect” that entails the felony is not well-defined, giving state and local attorneys a gray area of legal fuzziness in which to operate. They typically choose not to press charges. Rather, most truancy cases are handled in the juvenile courts system and never reach the attention to be handled by county and district attorneys.

However, in the case of Samantha O’Neal, the county prosecutor felt that the situation warranted the state to step in. Only an extreme case would cause legal action, one in which the neglect could also be seen as a form of abuse. In her recollection, no one has ever before been charged with “educational neglect” in Allen County, where O’Neal resides.

Indiana is not the only state to have a law on educational neglect in its books, though naturally each state takes a different approach to the problem with its own set of legal sanctions and penalties. Some states only prosecute educational neglect as a misdemeanor, but will often add educational neglect to other charges of child neglect or abuse.

These differences make it somewhat difficult to compare this form of neglect across state borders, in terms of either charges or convictions. One study at Southwest Missouri State found that 14 percent of child-maltreatment cases in the United States involve educational neglect. To be sure, the correlation is fairly strong, and with more high-profile neglect-related criminal defense cases cropping up in the news, such as the O’Neal case, more people may become aware of the problem.