Parents whose children arrive late to class cannot face criminal charges under a Virginia law requiring school attendance, the state’s highest court ruled Friday.
The decision by the Virginia Supreme Court exonerates a Purcellville mother of three who was convicted of misdemeanor charges for her children’s tardiness, and it ensures that — unless legislators act to change the law — bringing children to school late will no longer be a crime on its own in the state.
In throwing out the mother’s convictions, state Supreme Court Justice LeRoy F. Millette Jr. wrote that it was a stretch to interpret Virginia’s mandatory attendance law as making tardiness a crime. Such a broad interpretation of the law, Millette wrote, would provide “blanket authority for prosecution of parents for even de minimis tardiness or absence on the part of their children.”
The court’s decision stemmed from a 2012 case in Loudoun County in which Maureen Blake, a divorced mother of three, was convicted of three misdemeanor charges for her children’s lateness and fined $1,000 for each count. Millette wrote in his decision that each charge was based on five instances in which the children, then ages 8, 10 and 11, were late, generally by about five to 20 minutes.
Blake stated that some of the tardiness was attributable to one child’s struggle with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavioral problems on the part of the children or Blake’s own ADHD, for which she was receiving treatment.
Blake’s convictions came at a time when Loudoun authorities appeared to move aggressively to pursue parents whose children were late to school. Prosecutors charged another couple, Mark and Amy Denicore, the same year but later dropped those counts when the Denicore children began to show up to class more promptly.
The charges sparked a debate about whether authorities were being overzealous in their effort to stamp out what some considered a minor infraction.
Mark Denicore, a lawyer who argued at the time that state law did not criminalize minor tardiness, said he has since pulled his children out of the public school system and is home schooling them. He said that he feels “somewhat vindicated” that the state Supreme Court agreed with many of his arguments, but he added, “This was not a pleasant process to go through.”
“I can’t believe something like this has to go to the Supreme Court before somebody does the right thing,” he said.
Blake and her attorney could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.
Loudoun schools spokesman Wayde Byard said that the school system hasn’t referred any parent to prosecutors for making their children late to school since early 2012 and that it no longer does so for cases that simply involve tardiness. Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney James E. Plowman and a spokesman for his office did not return messages seeking comment.
The ruling focused on a particular Virginia law, Code section 22.1-254, which prosecutors had interpreted as criminalizing absence and tardiness because it required parents to send their children to some type of school “for the same number of days and hours per day as the public schools.” Millette wrote that the law does not criminalize tardiness and noted that other laws lay out how prosecutors and school officials should handle parents whose children miss school altogether.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Cleo E. Powell wrote that the majority’s decision would make it so “there are no repercussions under the Code for a parent who brings her child to school twenty minutes prior to dismissal every day.” The dissent was joined by Justice William C. Mims.
Other Washington-area school officials said they generally work to discipline students who are late rather than pursue criminal charges against the parents.
Max A. Pugh Jr., a spokesman for the Prince George’s County schools, said the school system refers cases to the courts only for absences. Steve Neff, the director of pupil personnel services in Montgomery County, said students with a high incidence of being late face “district and school-based interventions, but we do not refer them to the state’s attorney.” John Torre, a Fairfax County schools spokesman, said the school system “would exhaust many avenues and interventions before using the courts.”
T. Rees Shapiro, Donna St. George and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.