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Truancies and School Attendance

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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Information about what happens when your child does not attend school and the school files a truancy action. #1134EN


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Must children go to school?

All children in Washington state between ages 8 - 18 must go to school.

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.

Are there special exceptions for youth ages 16 and older?


  • They are working lawfully and regularly, and the parent agrees the child should not have to go to school or the child is legally emancipated.

  • 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 six or seven?

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 formally dis-enrolls the child before the district serves them with a truancy petition.

  • The child goes to school part-time for supplemental services.

A child can miss school for a valid excuse, such as illness.  If there is no valid excuse, the school district can bring a truancy action against the child and parents.

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

Before the district can bring a truancy action in court, it must first:

  • Notify the parents of the unexcused absences.

  • Schedule a conference with the parents after two unexcused absences in a month.

  • Try to stop or reduce the absences.

How can the school help?

The school must do both of these:

  • Find out why the child is not coming to school.

  • 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).

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. Example: it can transfer the child to another school.

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 she missed.

  • The absences were unexcused.

  • The school district has tried to end or reduce the absences.

I am the parent. Do I have to go to court?

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.

Do I have to ask the school for help?

Yes. If your child is not going to school, you must ask the principal or a teacher for help. 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.

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 monitor attendance. If the child does not follow the court's order, the court may find the child OR parent in contempt. In cases of contempt, the court could:

  • Fine the parent $25 a day.

  • Order the child to do community service hours.

  • Effective July 1, 2019, sentence the child to juvenile detention for up to three business days in a row.

In truancy cases, neither child nor parent has a right to a lawyer. The child has a right to a lawyer if the court is charging the child with contempt. To contact a free lawyer, call your local juvenile court. (Go to www.courts.wa.gov for a directory.)

When 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

What if 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.


This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
This information is current as of July 2019.

© 2019 Northwest Justice Project. 1-888-201-1014.
(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and individuals for non-commercial use only.)


Last Review and Update: Jun 03, 2019