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WashingtonLawHelp.orgWashington LawHelp

Truancy and School Attendance, Including 2020-2021 School Year Updates

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
Read this in:
Spanish / Español

Information about what happens when your child does not attend school and the school files a truancy action. #1134EN


Please Note:

  • Read this only if you live in the state of Washington.
  • You can find all the fact sheets we link to here at WashingtonLawHelp.org.

Get Legal Help

Visit Northwest Justice Project to find out how to get legal help. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Do children have to go to school? +

Generally, yes. All children in Washington state between ages 8-18 must go to school.
* During the 2020-2021 school year, all children between ages 8-18 must still go to school even if their school moved to remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning can include online, a combination of online and in-person (hybrid) or rotating schedules.

Are there any exceptions to this? +


  • They go to an approved private school.
  • They are home schooled. 
  • They go to a certified education center devoted to teaching basic academic skills.
  • The school superintendent has excused them because they physically or mentally cannot go to school.

There are special exceptions for youth ages 16 and older if any of these is true:

  • They are working lawfully and regularly, and the parent agrees they should not have to go to school or they are emancipated. (Read Emancipation of Minors in Washington State.)
  • They have already met graduation requirements.
  • They get a “certificate of educational competence” by meeting certain requirements, including passing the GED.

What about children who are 6 or 7? +

If a parent chooses to enroll them in school, they must go regularly unless one of these is true:

  • The school district has temporarily excused the student.
  • The parent dis-enrolls the child before the district serves them with a truancy petition.
  • The child goes to school part-time for supplemental services.

My child is missing school. What will the school district do? +

It depends. A child can miss school for a valid reason, such as illness. However, if your child has five or more unexcused absences in a month, or 10 unexcused absences in a school year, the district may consider your child “truant” and can bring a truancy action against you and your child.
Before the district can bring a truancy action in court, it must first:

  • Let you know about your child’s unexcused absences
  • Schedule a conference with you after two unexcused absences in a month
  • Try to stop or reduce the absences

My child misses school a lot because of illness or disability. What can I do? +

Your child might qualify for reasonable accommodations outlined in a “504 Plan”. (Visit the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction website to learn more.) They might also qualify for special education and an individualized education program (IEP). Ask the district to evaluate your child to see if they qualify for these services. (Read Referral for Special Services Evaluation Form.)
If your child has a temporary illness or disability that makes them miss school for at least 4 weeks, they might qualify for Home/Hospital Instruction. (Visit the Office of Superintendent’s Home/Hospital Instruction page to learn more.)

What about missing remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic? +

In the 2019-2020 school year, districts could not file truancy actions for absences between March 17, 2020 and the end of the school year.
During the 2020-2021 school year, any absences from the start of the school year until October 4, 2020 will be considered a “non-truancy remote learning absence.” Districts cannot file truancy actions for any absences between the start of the 2020-2021 school year and October 4, 2020.
Starting October 5, 2020, districts must mark if an absence is an excused or unexcused in-person or remote learning absence.

What is a remote learning absence? +

This is when a student does not take part in instructional activity assigned on a school day scheduled for remote learning.
There are different ways your district can take student attendance on remote learning school days:

  • Student logins on to learning management systems
  • Student contact with teachers by email, phone call and video chat
  • Proof of student participation in a task or assignment, including after regularly scheduled school hours

The COVID-19 pandemic may cause some students to miss school.
* During the 2020-2021 school year, districts must excuse in-person or remote learning absences for:

  • A student’s illness, health condition or medical appointment due to COVID-19
  • Caring for a family member who has an illness, health condition or medical appointment due to COVID-19
  • A student’s work or family obligations during regular school hours that were necessary because of COVID-19
  • A parent’s work schedule or other obligations during regular school hours
  • Not having needed instructional tools, such as computers or access to internet or WiFi
  • Other COVID-19-related circumstances
  • If your child is not going to school, ask the school for help.

Contact the principal or a teacher. If you do nothing, the school may file a truancy action in court. If you ask for and do not get help, you can file a truancy action.

How can the school help? +

It must find out why the child is not coming to school and try to find a solution.

Example 1:  The child needs special education because of a disability. The district must provide appropriate special education and other services such as counseling, therapy, and medical services (for diagnosis or evaluation). Read Questions and Answers for Parents of Children with Disabilities: Special Education Services during Coronavirus (COVID-19) School Closures.
Example 2:  A child is afraid to go to school because another child is threatening, harassing, or bullying them. The district must try to stop the harassment. For example, it can transfer the child to another school. Read bit.ly/33zzto5 to learn more.
* During the 2020-2021 school year, districts must also:

  • Take daily attendance of all students on in-person and remote learning school days.
  • Let parents know daily about a student’s in-person or remote learning absence.
  • Verify (double-check) parents’ contact information and try to contact them several times and in different ways if needed, and in the parents’ home language.
  • Work with the student to offer support based on the student’s needs.
  • Move the student to full-time, in-person learning, if possible and appropriate.

What happens in a truancy action? +

At a court hearing, the district must prove all of these:

  • The student missed all the days the district claims the student missed.
  • The absences were unexcused.
  • The district has tried to end or lower the absences.

I am the parent. Do I go to court too? +

Yes. You must appear at all court hearings on the truancy.  The judge will let you

  • Tell your side of the story.
  • Challenge the district’s claims about you or your child. 
  • Explain why the child is missing school and what would help the child. 
  • Show how the school did not try to keep the child in school.

What can the court do? +

A court that finds that you or your child has not properly attended school may order the child to go to school and will keep an eye on attendance. If the child does not follow the court's order, the court can find the child or parent in contempt. This means the court could:

  • Fine the parent $25 a day.
  • Order the student to do community service.
  • Sentence the student to juvenile detention for up to three business days in a row.

* Under a new state law, starting in July 2021, judges can no longer sentence a student to juvenile detention for not following a court’s order.  
Do I have the right to a free lawyer in a truancy case?
Generally, no, not for parent or child. The child has a right to a lawyer only if the court is charging the child with contempt. To contact a free lawyer, call your local juvenile court.  (Go to courts.wa.gov for a directory.)

Will the judge send my child to juvenile detention for contempt? +

It depends.  The judge must decide that detention is the only appropriate option after:

  • reviewing all the available less restrictive options 
  • getting input on juvenile detention from your child

* Under a new state law, starting in July 2021, judges can no longer sentence a student to juvenile detention for not following a court’s order.

I think my child is being unfairly treated because of their race or ethnicity.
Truancy actions have tended to target students and parents of color more than white students and parents. If you think the district is unfairly treating your child because of their race or ethnicity, you can file a formal complaint. Read the Office of Superintendent Office of Public Instruction’s Complaints and Concerns about Discrimination to learn more.
I cannot communicate with the school in English.
The school must give parents notices in their language, if practical. You may have a friend or relative call the school to ask for an oral translation. You should also ask for an interpreter to be at any meetings.  You also have a right to an interpreter at any court hearings. It is not your responsibility to find or pay for the interpreter.

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Last Review and Update: Jan 20, 2022