Georgia Supreme Court upholds school attendance statute

ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court Monday upheld a Georgia law holding parents and guardians responsible for sending their children to school.

The case stems from Jackson County, where Chanell Pitts was convicted in state court last October for violations of the Georgia Mandatory education Statute. A summary from the high court states that Pitts was sentenced to three months on probation.

Under the statute, children ages 6-16 are required to attend a public, private or home school program; once a child has five unexcused absences from school, each additional absence is treated as a separate offense.

According to the high court summary, Pitts’ son, a student at Jefferson Academy in Jackson County, missed class on nine separate occasions in August 2011. The court said the case facts showed that the student was bitten by a dog before Aug. 5, requiring surgery, and that a physician’s note from the surgical center cleared him to resume classes Aug. 11. She provided a subsequent note saying he was being treated for a sore throat and would return Aug. 23, followed by another doctor’s note saying he would be back Aug. 26. The student did not return to school on any of the days cited.

The school, as required under the statute, sent Pitts a letter inquiring about her son’s whereabouts on Aug. 19, following up with a certified letter on Sept. 9, 2011. In January 2012, the court said, Pitts was charged by accusation with nine separate counts of violating the statutes in August 2011.

Her attorney’s contentions that the statute was unconstitutional and request that charges be dismissed were rejected and on Oct. 24 after a bench trial in Jackson County State Court, Pitts was found guilty of three of the charges and acquitted of the remaining counts. In addition to 90 days on probation, she was fined $200.

Pitts appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the statute violated her due process and equal protection rights under the U.S. and state constitutions, and that it also violated the doctrine of separation of powers under the Georgia Constitution.

In Monday’s unanimous opinion, written by Presiding Justice P. Harris Hines, the high court has rejected her arguments and upheld the lower court’s ruling.

“[T]he requirement of due process is that the law give a person of ordinary intelligence fair warning of the conduct which is forbidden or mandated,” the opinion says, “and it is clear that (the statute) punishes the legally unjustified failure to send a child for whom one is responsible to school. And, the trial court noted in Pitts’ case that ultimately she was to be prosecuted for only those counts in the accusation for which she ‘wholly failed to provide any attempt whatsoever’ to excuse her son’s absences from school.”

Pitts argued that her equal protection rights were violated because the statute allows different school boards to establish different guidelines for determining what constitutes an “unexcused absence.”

The opinion stated that the statute “is reasonably related to the legitimate governmental interest of ensuring that the children residing in Georgia are afforded the opportunity of an education. Second, as noted by the trial court, there are statewide regulations which establish minimum requirements.”

Different circumstances and resources of local school boards require that they have some flexibility in defining an unexcused absence, the court found. “Simply,” the opinion stated, “the statute has not been shown to run afoul of constitutional equal protection.”

Finally, the high court has ruled that there “is no violation of the Georgia separation-of-powers doctrine.”