Sheriff's Department and school officials have proposed a plan to reduce truancy by charging San Dimas parents for the costly "taxi service" that deputies provide for children caught skipping class.
Under the proposal, which must be approved by the City Council, parents would be required to pay for the time it takes a deputy to return their truant children to school, said Sgt. Terry Gingerich, crime prevention officer at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department San Dimas station.
Levies would be based on an estimated $60 per hour cost of keeping a fully equipped deputy in the field. Returning a child to school and completing the accompanying paper work normally take about one hour, Gingerich said.
"This is not really being considered as a way to make money, but (as) a way to say to parents and kids that this is a serious offense," he said. "When you go to a person's pocketbook and you're costing them money, maybe that will do something."
The payment would be one more incentive for parents to ensure that their children make it to classes in the Bonita Unified School District, said Ron Lackey, director of educational services. The district, serving about 10,000 students in San Dimas and La Verne, also prosecutes parents of chronically truant students.
If truancy fees are approved and are successful in San Dimas, the district will try to implement them in La Verne, Lackey said.
"If one kid's out there and one kid gets in trouble and hurts someone, then that's one too many," he said.
Officials say the truancy fee plan, which has been approved by the school board, will have to pass legal and public scrutiny before it can be put into effect. But if it is enacted, according to the California Assn. of Child Welfare and Attendance Workers, it would be the first program of its kind in the state.
Make Parents Accountable
Gingerich said deputies and district officials came up with the proposal while considering ways to make parents more accountable for their children's school attendance. If homeowners can be charged when police repeatedly respond to false burglar alarms, they reasoned, parents could be charged when officers take children back to school.
The district does not have a significant truancy problem, Lackey said. The truancy rate is less than 2%, compared to the statewide average of 4%.
But school officials are concerned with losing about $20 in state funds provided each day a student is in attendance. Through May 11, Lackey said, the district had lost about $60,000 from 3,024 days when students were considered truant because they had no excuse from parents to explain their absence.
"It doesn't take a whole lot of kids a whole lot of days before we're losing a lot of money," he said. "And crime protection is at stake too. If deputies are going to run a taxi service, someone's going to have to pay for it."
Like Traffic Citations
Gingerich said the district envisions the costs charged to parents as more like a traffic citation. No criminal charges would be filed. First offenses might be waived if students had no more truancies during the rest of the term or if they performed community service, but parents of students who continued to be truant would be assessed the fees. Parents who could not pay the fees might be allowed to perform community service instead.
Any money collected would probably go to help pay for a deputy who acts as a school resource officer, Lackey said, a position now financed mostly by the city of San Dimas. That officer is charged with discouraging truancy and delinquency, thereby reducing juvenile crime rates.
The school district submitted a request last week asking San Dimas to authorize deputies to carry out the plan. If that request is cleared by the city attorney, City Manager Bob Poff said, it will be considered by the City Council. The council must approve the plan because the city contracts with the Sheriff's Department for law enforcement.
"Truancy is a problem that must be dealt with," Mayor Terry Dibble said this week. "Initially, it sounds like something we could and should work out."
Councilman Curt Morris said, "Anything within reason the city can do to keep kids in school, the city should do."
But while other council members agreed that truancy should not be tolerated, they were more tentative about the idea.
"Some of the families that it would affect--I'm not sure they would have the ability to pay," council member Maria Tortorelli said. "It's not all just kids playing hooky, and to put it like that is not exactly right."
Deputies and teachers who deal with children who have truancy problems think the fee could apply important leverage to unconcerned parents. But they are not depending on it as a cure-all.
"If we don't get it, that's fine." Gingerich said. "If you're not going to send your kids to school, and you don't care, then $60 over your head is nothing. But it is a way for us to warn parents that we want their kids in school whether they like it or not."