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PARENTING : Trying to Collar Truancy : A number of creative programs in the schools can help lower student absenteeism, but parents need to play a big part in effectively tackling it.

October 21, 1994|JAMES E. FOWLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's 10 a.m. Monday.

Parents! Do you know where your children are?

For most, the answer is easy: in school.

But for the parents of habitually truant schoolchildren, the answer is uncertain. And that uncertainty is only part of a difficult and disheartening problem for parents and students alike.

California requires children between the ages of 6 and 18 to be full-time students. According to the law, youngsters are truant if they are absent three or more days without a valid excuse (such as illness or a family emergency) during one school year. Most Los Angeles Unified School District schools notify parents by phone when students are absent even one day.

Such absenteeism is a concern, of course, from an academic standpoint. But psychologist Kathleen Welch, assistant director of training at the San Fernando Valley Child Guidance Clinic, cites another cause for alarm.

"Truancy is usually an early indicator--especially for girls--for runaways and other delinquent behavior," Welch says. "It's an early warning sign. For a high number of these kids, avoidance becomes a pattern for dealing with the issues in their lives."

Karen Saunders, a coordinating counselor in L.A. unified's Pupil Services and Attendance (PSA) section, which deals with chronic truants, says the district has a number of creative programs for dealing with the problem. But she believes that parents must also participate for students to get back on track and in school.

"It takes a lot of time and patience," Saunders says. "There's no miracle formula."

Initially, in the case of an absentee student, the school will usually set up a conference for the pupil and parents. When the student returns to school, he or she will face remedial measures, which might include period-by-period attendance checks, class schedule changes, tests for learning disabilities, a transfer to another school or alternative program, or personal counseling. For older students, continuation school and/or some kind of work-study or vocational training may be an option.

Saunders says it's the parent's job to become informed about the various alternatives the district offers to truant students and to ask questions of school officials.

In persistent cases, youngsters are referred to the School Attendance Review Board, which can arrange for parenting training, provide referrals for family therapy and set up tutoring for students. Review board meetings usually result in the pupil and parents committing to a contract under which the child agrees to attend school.

Theoretically, if the student's behavior does not change, the process can continue until the district files a complaint with the district attorney's office and eventually takes parents and/or students to Juvenile Court. The student could be put on probation and parents possibly fined and held in contempt if truancy persists. However, such instances are rare.

"We're not interested in giving the child a record," Saunders says. "But we need them to be able to support themselves" after leaving school.

The district's efforts to combat truancy are hampered by understaffing. There are only 200 PSA counselors to handle a student population of 640,000. Last year, 4,140 habitually absent students were referred for review board hearings (up from 2,989 the year before).

Welch, who deals primarily with adolescents referred by the probation and police departments, reports that most truant kids don't even make it to review board hearings.

Instead, they get lost in the system and wind up dropping out of school. "Truancy usually comes to the attention of authorities when the child is arrested for some other crime," Welch says.

She and others believe, however, that there's hope for truant kids if parents get involved. According to Welch, "You have to catch it early on."

10 Tips for Families

Ten things parents can do when their child is truant:

1. Meet the school personnel involved with your child's education. The list might include the principal, assistant principals, counselor, teachers, nurse and PSA counselor.

2. Request an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, meeting to discuss truancy problems with school officials.

3. Know the school rules and regulations. Request a copy and discuss them with your child.

4. Know when report cards are due.

5. Accompany your child to school and, in extreme cases, attend all classes.

6. Request period-by-period attendance checks for your child.

7. Maintain regular contact with the attendance office personnel. Inform them not to accept absence notes, and tell them you will personally call them if your child is too ill to attend school.

8. Attend parenting classes and support groups given through schools, churches, hospitals and community centers.

9. Provide a quiet place for your child to study.

10. Call the Los Angeles Unified School District Attendance Hotline, (800) 865-2873.

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