Kings County takes the lead in truancy crackdown

The Fresno BeeMay 17, 2014 

Kings County is emerging as a statewide leader in an anti-truancy movement by jailing uncooperative parents.

Experts starting with the state's top law enforcement officer say reducing prison populations could be as simple as keeping kids in school, causing top law enforcement officials and educators to call for more enforcement of school attendance laws.

"Eighty-two percent of prisoners are high school dropouts," California Attorney General Kamala Harris said. "There's a direct connection between education and public safety."

Harris is urging the Legislature to modernize truancy laws to require county offices of education and district attorneys to work together to tackle what she called the truancy "crisis."

Helping parents solve family problems so their children are in school instead of home would put a major crimp in the so-called "school to prison pipeline," according to child advocates.

Kings County gets tough

In Kings County, a Hanford mother whose two elementary schoolchildren missed 116 days in one year was sentenced to six months in jail.

The tactic may sound extreme but it works for the children involved, said truant officer Brian Gonzales at the Kings County Office of Education. He has been a truant officer for 15 years and has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

"They're going to school everyday," he said.

The mother was sentenced under a 3-year-old state law that makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, to keep a child out of elementary or middle school for more than 10% of a school year, which is 18 days.

"There are consequences if you don't follow through," Gonzales said.

Gonzales, who sits on the attorney general's Truancy Intervention Panel, said anti-truancy prosecutions in Kings get more support from the local District Attorney's Office than just about any county in the state, but that's starting to change as the truancy problem gets more attention.

"I tell people, you need to have your county superintendent of schools speak to your prosecutor," he said.

Kings County District Attorney Greg Strickland said he strongly supports prosecuting parents of truants.

"If I can keep kids in school, I can keep them out of prison," he said. "If I can save that kid and get them through school, they'll stay out of the system, get a job and not be on welfare."

Grace Espindola, past president of the California Association of Supervisors of Child Welfare and Attendance, a group that follows truancy issues, said prosecutions are rare but necessary.

"Kings County is a model for other counties in the state" when all else fails, she said.

To date, 10 parents have been charged with misdemeanor failure to reasonably supervise and encourage school attendance in Kings County. There have been six cases in Tulare County and none in Fresno or Madera counties.

Fresno County Chief Deputy District Attorney John Savrnoch said truancy cases are handled administratively by the school districts and the district attorney has not been asked to prosecute a case as a misdemeanor.

But if a chronic truancy case meets the elements for prosecution as a misdemeanor, it would be filed, he said.

School districts also can take a parent to court alleging an infraction of the education code -- a model that Sanger Unified follows.

Study supports move

State Attorney General Harris' call for modernizing truancy laws follows the release last year by her office of the "In School + On Track" report, which said truancy is at a "crisis level" in California because 29.6% of elementary students in 2012-13 had more than three days of unexcused absences.

Statistics about chronic truancy -- 18 days or more of unexcused absences per year -- are not kept, but it is estimated that 250,000 elementary school students statewide missed that much school last year, Harris said.

"If the child at the end of third grade is not reading at the third-grade level, they literally drop off -- they don't catch up," she said. Such students are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Even a first-grader who misses nine or more days is twice as likely to drop out of high school compared to students who regularly attend school, the On Track report said.

Additionally, high school dropouts cost the state an estimated $46 billion a year, Harris said.

The proposed legislation, supported by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson and introduced by Democratic legislators, would require local offices of education to keep better statistics so educators can spot trends and serve as watchdogs of truancy.

It also would require each county office of education to establish a Student Attendance Review Board that includes a representative from the local district attorney's office, and that the results of prosecutions be reported to the state.

The bills are currently in legislative committees, and one has been amended to include a representative from the public defender's office on the attendance review board.

California's efforts at getting serious about truancy are being watched by other states, said Ronnie Land, executive director of the International Association for Truancy and Dropout Prevention, who attended a statewide truancy summit held last week in Lemoore.

"What California is doing is proven to work," he said.

Family dysfunction

Chronic truancy almost always involves families that have substance abuse issues, domestic violence, a single parent, a parent in prison, mental illness, suicide, language barriers, health issues, poverty, homelessness, or other problems, said David Kopperud, chairman of the state SARB that coordinates policies with county offices of education and school districts.

"It's not because the parents don't love their children," he said. "They have severe behavioral issues. They've lost control of their lives. It's really sad."

A child who misses too many days in first and second grade gets embarrassed at being unable to read and stops wanting to go to school, he said.

"This is the 'school to prison pipeline,' when it could have been prevented," Kopperud said.

Early intervention by educators and mental health experts aims to work with the family to keep a child in school and out of the pipeline, he said.

Procedures vary, but typically a truancy officer or school official will visit the family at home and try to get the parent to send the child to class.

At Parlier Unified, school officials try to gain the trust of the parent, said Praxades "Nunie" Torres, child welfare and student attendance supervisor.

"Maybe they need a doctor or we can get them help," he said. "Every case is different."

Problem cases get referred to the district's Student Attendance Review Board, which has the legal authority to require a parent to sign a contract promising to send the child to school.

The board also can require a parent to take a parenting class or get similar help.

A review board should have a representative of the behavioral health division of the county health department so that appropriate services such as drug counseling can be offered, Kopperud said.

"I'd like to see that be the state norm," he said, noting that Kings County does it that way. "A mental health representative really increases effectiveness."

The most difficult cases end up at the county SARB if there is one -- Kings County has one but Tulare, Fresno and Madera do not -- which is required to have a representative from behavioral health.

The SARB can ask the district attorney to prosecute a parent for misdemeanor failure to send a child to school, but often the district takes the parent to court alleging an infraction of the education code.

That's how Sanger Unified handles problem cases, said Dennis Weichmann, supervisor of child welfare and attendance.

Last year in Sanger, parents of about 44 students in elementary, middle school and high school were ordered to appear in court on infractions that carry a $340 fine per child including court fees, he said.

When the courts get involved, attendance almost always improves, he said.

"The more you stay in school," he said, "the better you'll do academically and the less likely you'll end up going through the system."

County Elementary School Truancy Rate (2011-12)

Fresno: 21.4%

Kings: 21.5%

Madera: 22%

Tulare: 16.4%

California: 29.6%

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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