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Truants Ordered Back to Class

Discipline: A 17-year-old girl and the father of a fourth-grader who must attend school with his son are the first punished in Orange County's crackdown.

January 24, 2002|MAI TRAN and MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Pressing its campaign against truancy, Orange County punished its first offenders Wednesday, including the father of 9-year-old who must attend his son's fourth-grade classes.

Carlos Ayala must sit through his son's classes at an Anaheim grade school at least once a week, Juvenile Court Judge Robert Hutson said. Ayala's son has missed 45 days of school since August.

Prosecutors said the judge's order sends a message that parents will be held accountable for their child's truancy.

"The father just hasn't done anything," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Danielle Augustin. "He must understand that it's his responsibility to get his son to school."

Hutson on Wednesday also ordered a 17-year-old girl accused of missing more than 17 days of school to attend class.

The girl's father thanked the judge for helping him with a problem he said had gotten out of his control.

"I'm very aware of how important student attendance is," said Tim Jones, a fourth-grade teacher. He said groundings hadn't stopped his daughter from ditching class at Gilbert East Continuation School in Anaheim. "This is a long time overdue. Schools have to take a more aggressive approach."

The high school student and the father of the 9-year-old face fines, probation or even jail time if they fail to follow the judge's orders. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The District Attorney's Truancy Response Program began in August with more than $200,000 in state and federal grants. Three deputy district attorneys have been tracking hundreds of students with more than two unexcused absences in any school year.

The crackdown is modeled after similar programs in San Diego, Ventura, Los Angeles and Sacramento counties. Students face Juvenile Court charges that could lead to probation, while parents can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

"This is not about punishment," said Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckus, who is running for reelection this year. "It's about keeping kids in school, keeping them straight. This is teeth for truancy laws."

Augustin said that prosecutors are working with school officials to identify habitual truants and that more students and parents will be summoned to court soon.

"Children who aren't in school are probably up to not much good," Augustin said. "There's a strong connection that truant kids commit crimes or are victims of crimes."

The 17-year-old girl pleaded not guilty to truancy charges and a pretrial hearing was set for Feb. 20. If she starts going to class, the charges could be dropped.

Her mother, Patricia Redner, is divorced from the girl's father and has custody of the teen. She was charged in January with violating the state's education code, which requires parents to ensure their children attend school through the age of 17. She pleaded guilty, but a Superior Court judge didn't impose a sentence.

Ayala, who works nights, was charged with violating the state's education code. Prosecutors said they charged the father because he is his son's primary caretaker while the boy's mother works during the day.

The Anaheim City School District has tried to work with the family, offering counseling and weekend classes and providing a mentor. Police have even escorted the boy to school.

Ayala, who pleaded not guilty, could face jail or a $100 fine if his son continues to skip school. A progress hearing is scheduled for Feb. 20 .

"Like any other kid, he just doesn't like school," Ayala said after the hearing. "It's boring. But I tell him he has to go because it's the law."

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