Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter. Written by Attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

Dear Legal Mailbag:

I am sick and tired of parents who think that middle school education is unimportant. Every spring, I receive a spate of emails from parents notifying me that they will be taking their children out of school for family vacation. I dutifully follow up with the parents to tell them that school is in session on the days that they are planning to be on vacation. However, some parents politely tell me that their children are young only once, and that family vacation is certainly more important over the long term than two weeks of middle school. Other parents simply tell me that they don’t care what I think and that I am not the boss of them. When they even bother to try to justify their decisions, they tell me that, as the parents, they have the right to excuse their child’s absence from school.

As a committed educator, I feel that I should do something, but I don’t want to step in mud. I dimly remember that there are some rules around this whole excused/unexcused absence thing. Do I have the right to override a parent’s attempt to excuse these absences or do I have to accept their decisions, however ill-advised?

An Absence-Minded Principal

Dear Principal:

Your concern is an inspiration to the rest of us, and I certainly don’t want to discourage you in your efforts to promote good attendance at your school. However, you are correct in recalling that there is some guidance on the question of excused absences, and that guidance gives parents significant leeway in excusing absences of their children — up to a point.

Specifically, since 1990 the statutes have provided that students should be considered “truant” when they have four unexcused absences in a month or a total of ten unexcused absences during a school year; and, the statutes have further provided that school officials must take certain actions when students are “truant.” However, the determination of when a student is “truant” triggers these obligations, and thus we must understand what is and is not an “unexcused” absence. To provide guidance in this regard, the General Assembly passed Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 10-198b, which required that the State Board of Education define “excused” and “unexcused” absences by June 30, 2012. By resolution dated June 27, 2012, the State Board of Education provided that definition. The Commissioner of Education then followed up in April 2013 with “Guidelines for Implementation of the Definitions of Excused and Unexcused Absences and Best Practices for Absence Prevention and Intervention,” and the definition and guidance concerning unexcused absences may help you deal with these parents.

Significantly, the definition and the Guidance both provide that, for the first nine absences, parents are able to decide for themselves when to excuse their children from school. The Guidance provides that the first nine absences in a school year will be considered “excused” for “any reason that the student’s parent or guardian approves.” Starting with the tenth absence, however, parents must provide documentation that the circumstances fit the definition of “excused” absence as established by the State Board of Education, which circumstances the Guidance describes as follows:

  1. student illness (Note: all student illness absences must be verified by an appropriately licensed medical professional to be deemed excused, regardless of the length of absence);
  2. student’s observance of a religious holiday;
  3. death in the student’s family or other emergency beyond the control of the student’s family;
  4. mandated court appearances (additional documentation required);
  5. the lack of transportation that is normally provided by a district other than the one the student attends (no parental documentation is required for this reason); or
  6. extraordinary educational opportunities pre-approved by district administrators and in accordance with Connecticut State Department of Education guidance.

Given that parents sometimes claim that a family vacation will be “educational” and should thus be excused, the elaboration in the Guidance over what qualifies as an “extraordinary educational opportunity” is particularly important:

a)  The opportunity must be educational in nature. It must have a learning objective related to the student’s course work or plan of study. Not all memorable and/or life experiences would be considered educational and, therefore, would not be available for this exemption.
b)  It must be an opportunity not ordinarily available to the student.
c)  It must be grade and developmentally appropriate.
d)  The content of the experience must be highly relevant to the student. While some opportunities will be relevant to all students, others will contain very specific content that would limit their relevance to a smaller group of students. For example, a trumpet lesson from jazz great Wynton Marsalis would be very relevant to students who play trumpet, but not to others who do not play trumpet.

To further clarify, the Guidance provides examples.

Some examples of extraordinary educational opportunities include:

  • the opportunity to meet the President of the United States or a foreign head of state; or
  • a behind the scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Center.

Some examples of activities that do not qualify as extraordinary educational opportunities include:

  • family vacations; or
  • going to a concert of a favorite pop star.

Some parents are not going to like how restrictive this definition is, but we must remind them that these requirements apply only after their child has been absent for nine days in a year.

Finally, in recent years, the General Assembly has continued its focus on attendance in various ways. In 2014, it expanded the definition of “excused” absences by another ten days for children who are visiting parents or guardians who are in the armed forces. Then, in 2015 and 2016, the General Assembly passed new legislation concerning “chronic absenteeism,” which affects school districts with high absentee rates. Review of these other changes regarding attendance is beyond the scope of this answer, but we hope that the information above regarding parent excusal of student absences is helpful to you.

Please submit your questions to: legalmailbag@casciac.org.