Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Addresses Truancy Standard Under the Child Requiring Assistance Statute

In a decision released February 6, 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court defined the circumstances in which a child “willfully fails to attend school” pursuant to the Commonwealth’s Child Requiring Assistance (“CRA”) statute, G.L. c. 119, § 21.

The decision, Millis Public Schools v. M.P., SJC-12384, held that a child who “acts purposefully, such that his or her behavior arises from reasons portending delinquent behavior” qualifies as a child willfully failing to attend school under the law.

The Legislature enacted the CRA in 1973 with the intention of diverting children from delinquent behavior while providing nonpunitive care. To accomplish this task, the statute authorizes the Juvenile Court to intervene and potentially alter custody arrangements in cases of children deemed as requiring assistance. The CRA defines a child requiring assistance as one between the ages of six (6) and eighteen (18) that either: (i) repeatedly runs away from home; (ii) repeatedly fails to obey the lawful commands of their parent or guardian; (iii) is habitually truant; or (iv) is a sexually exploited child. A “habitually truant” child, as the court addressed in this case, is defined as a “school-aged child, not excused from attendance under the lawful and reasonable regulations of such child’s school, who willfully fails to attend school for more than 8 school days in a quarter.” The court must assess the child’s reasons for not attending school to determine whether the child’s absences are “willful.”

In the present case, Millis Public Schools filed a petition seeking to determine a determination that a fifteen (15) year old student, M.P., was a child requiring assistance. M.P. had been diagnosed with several medical, cognitive, and emotional conditions that severely impeded her ability to leave her home and attend school on a regular basis. For the 2016-2017 academic year, M.P.’s parents enrolled her in the school district so she could receive special education services. M.P. did not attend any classes from the beginning of the year through late October, prompting the district to file a CRA petition in November 2016. While the Juvenile Court noted that M.P.’s medical and emotional conditions hindered her ability to attend school, they were still found to be willful “actions taken by the child not to attend school.” M.P. appealed the Juvenile Court’s determination that she was habitually truant, bringing forth to the Supreme Judicial Court the issue of whether she “willfully failed to attend school.”

Looking to the Legislature’s goals in effectuating the CRA, as well as similar statutes in other jurisdictions, the court opined that a willful failure to attend school requires “more than voluntary or intentional conduct…when [the child] acts purposefully…his or her behavior arises from portending delinquent behavior.” The court emphasized that a willfulness inquiry is a fact-based inquiry and that each child’s rationale for truancy must be examined individually. Applying the court’s definition of “willfully” to M.P., the court held the record did not support a finding that M.P. willfully failed to attend school. M.P.’s failure to attend school did not arise from delinquent behavior; rather, she wanted to attend school but stayed home to address her medical and emotional conditions. Additionally, the court reasoned, no potential custodial modifications would have improved M.P.’s attendance record.

The court made a final point that districts should carefully consider the venue in which they bring attendance cases for children with disabilities. In some cases, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals may be more appropriate. Should you have concerns about how this decision impacts you, we advise you to contact us with your questions.

This update is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.