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Police Crack Down on Truancy

Education: Students are given citations to appear in court, where they face fines and loss of driver's licenses.

November 20, 1998|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian sits on the curb in his tank top, surrounded by cops.

When his dad had asked where he was headed this morning, the 13-year-old told him--in so many words--to go to hell. When a Highway Patrol officer tried to stop him on the street, he ran.

Now, his arms are folded and his jaw is clenched as West Covina police lean into his face and tell him he's either going to school or jail.

"Your days of thinking you're a 13-year-old tough guy are over," said Officer Pat Cirrito. He hands the boy a ticket and tells him to show up in court or face arrest.

Before, the teenager could have ignored the threat. Truancy cases were rarely prosecuted.

But Thursday, Cirrito and officers from four law enforcement agencies helped launch a pilot program they hope will put some teeth into daytime curfew laws.

Headed by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office in the San Gabriel Valley, the program teams prosecutors, police and school administrators to round up chronically truant teenagers.

"The system was so overloaded that a lot of kids were falling through the cracks," Deputy Dist. Atty. John Harrold said. "There wasn't enough follow-up after arrests."

Harrold said daytime curfews are becoming more common but there has been little coordination between law enforcement and the school administrators who monitor student attendance. Often, officers merely patrol local hangouts during school hours, busting anyone under age 18.

Now, prosecutors and officers attend meetings of the School Attendance Review Board (SARB). Under the pilot program, they will look for students who board officials say are missing too much school.

Harrold said the program seeks to prevent the downward spiral that starts with truancy and can end in serious crime and imprisonment. The program involves four school districts, but he hopes it can be expanded to the entire San Gabriel Valley.

Under the program, students caught off campus before 1 p.m. will be fined as much as $250. They must appear in Juvenile Traffic Court, where a judge can take away their driver's licenses. If they skip out on court, Harrold said, bench warrants will be issued for their arrest.

"I think the kids weren't responding to our threats," he said. "I've been on SARB boards for two years and I'd keep seeing the same kids coming back. And they'd laugh at us."

He said that meetings with school officials can better prepare prosecutors' cases.

"What the defense attorneys often argue is that this is the kid's first offense," he said. "But when I show this thick packet of interventions from the SARB board . . ."

The task force fanned out Thursday across Azusa, Covina and West Covina, searching for more than 20 targeted students. They stopped at malls, liquor store parking lots and parks, issuing 23 citations by the end of the day.

"Why aren't you in school today? Don't you like it?" a probation officer asked a boy sitting at the dugout of a West Covina baseball field at 11 a.m.

"I don't know. It's cool," Bernie, 14, replied, shrugging and adding that he had just moved from Bell.

"Well in West Covina, you have to go to school," said another officer as Bernie was ushered into a van and taken to school.

The boy's response to the ticket: "Oh man, do I got to go to court?"

A group of teenagers was stopped while waiting for a bus. "We have home studies," said Richard, 17. "We were going to the doctor to get a six-month checkup."

Two girls were stopped walking to school from an off-campus class. Once officers checked out their story, they wrote one of them a ticket anyway--for possession of tobacco.

In Brian's case, police called his father and told him to bring the boy to school. Later in the day, he threatened a teacher and was sent home with a referral to see a counselor.

"He doesn't listen to anything I say," the father said to police. "He tries to run the house. I really appreciate your help."

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