UT law faculty and students told the Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/ToT89x) that reforms of state rules governing the offense are warranted.
Dean Hill Rivkin, a professor in the UT College of Law, has examined truancy laws, data and enforcement across the state for the past four years.
Rivkin and his students made a presentation last week to Hamilton County teachers and social workers in which they recommended local programs to involve parents and explore the reasons behind truancy, which is defined by state law as missing five or more days of school "without adequate excuse."
They said more than 264,000 students were considered truant in Tennessee last year.
Rivkin, who oversees the school's Education Law Practicum, said the practicum has represented about 24 truant students in three years. Legal representation isn't guaranteed under Tennessee law for students facing truancy counts because it is a status offense instead of a criminal offense.
"We think every juvenile ought to have a lawyer because the consequences can be pretty severe," Rivkin said.
In addition, truancy laws are enforced differently across the state, according to law student Megan Swain.
"The way the law is, a lot is left up to school districts," she said. "Even in the districts, they're not enforced uniformly."
Rivkin also noted the importance of schools and courts being aware of the problems causing a student's attendance behavior.
Presenters said one of their cases involved a girl charged with truancy after missing several days of school and threatened with jail if she didn't return. Only after she got representation from the practicum did officials find out that she had been raped and was suffering from trauma, weight loss and frequent sickness.
The group said the state should add other reasons for valid absences such as bullying, mental health problems, chronic health issues, lack of transportation and homelessness.
Teacher Pam Thompson said it was alarming to see the number of truant students across the state.
"This data suggests we're not doing well," she said. "All of our children need to be in school some place."
Information from: Chattanooga Times Free Press, http://www.timesfreepress.com