When Schools Are Like Jails — Or Worse

A 17-year-old Texas honor student has been jailed for missing too much school. Diane Tran works both full-time and part-time jobs, in addition to taking advanced and college level courses, and her parents have split up and moved away, leaving her in charge of a younger sister, making it hard to keep to the exact school day. Judge Lanny Moriarty was not sympathetic: “If you let one run loose, what are you gonna do with the rest of ‘em?” [CBS Atlanta]. As one commenter noted, “The judge’s thought process is so primitive it’s just gut wrenching. His response is literally, ‘If you let one of them loose, What are you gonna do with the rest of them?’ What are humans? Animals? How on earth does that justify the fact of detaining a 17-year-old girl working overtime to support her sister and [college-attending] brother?”

If she were an adult college student, no one would fault her for occasionally missing class in order to earn a living or take care of relatives. (At Harvard Law School, I missed virtually every class in my secured transactions course, but still received a “B.”) Indeed, it would be deemed praiseworthy for her to earn academic honors despite juggling shouldering such heavy, competing burdens and responsibilities.

But Diane Tran, who has been forced to grow up fast and assume the mantle of adulthood, gets sent to jail for doing so. Why? Because the age of compulsory school attendance has been increased from 16 to 18 in many states. Most recently, “answering a call from President Obama,” Maryland increased the mandatory school attendance age from 16 to 18. Increased mandatory attendance ages deprive some impoverished students who are old enough to work of the needed flexibility to earn a living or care for siblings or sick relatives. They also increase risks to school safety by forcing bored underachievers who are not interested in learning to keep attending school even after age 16 — resulting in some of them acting out, disrupting class, or even committing acts of violence.

In reality, 17-year-old students forced to stay in school seldom learn much; their learning is “typically quite low,” says a Nobel Prize-winning economist. Forcing students to attend school longer creates jobs for teachers’ unions that seek to require schooling of some sort until age 21, and leads to truancy prosecutions against parents unable to get their stubborn, fully-grown offspring to school.

In Florida, a 17-year-old student with asthma nearly died after a school nurse denied him the use of his own inhaler, because his mother hadn’t signed a form. Then the nurse locked the door and watched him lose consciousness while refusing to call 911. There is absolutely no reason a 17-year-old student who is old enough to drive or join the military cannot be trusted to use his own inhaler as prescribed by a physician. The school district defends the nurse’s outrageous actions. If a parent had withheld an inhaler like this, it would be considered child abuse. If a prison did it to a prisoner, it would be a violation of the Eighth Amendment. But school officials, who cite the doctrine of in loco parentis when they want to restrict students’ free-speech and privacy rights, hypocritically refuse to accept any responsibility for the lives of their students even when the risk to the student’s life is created by the school’s own rules (like rules forcing students verging on adulthood to leave their inhaler with the school nurse).