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Ventura County

Stricter Truancy Measures Urged

Schools: Grand jury wants habitual offenders to be placed in juvenile hall. Critics say that approach would be costly and ineffective.

June 19, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County students who continually ditch class should be incarcerated and those at risk of becoming habitual truants should be put in a "boot-camp" style program to get them back on track, according to a grand jury report.

Citing U.S. Department of Justice statistics that show skipping school can lead to more serious offenses, the report released Tuesday recommends Ventura County school districts and police agencies do more to curb truancy and crack down on offenders, including sending some to juvenile hall.

But some probation and school officials disagreed with that approach, saying it would be costly and ineffective.

"Locking kids up for truancy is not good public policy," said Cal Remington, a county probation officer. "I can see where it might sound like a simple solution ... but for those kids with serious social and family problems, it isn't the way to do it."

Because a 1976 state law requires truants in juvenile hall be separated from youngsters guilty of more serious offenses such as burglary, theft or assault, county judges do not incarcerate teens who habitually ditch class, officials said.

But this practice, the grand jury report stated, should change when the county's Juvenile Justice Center opens next year, providing plenty of room to house truants separately.

Still, Remington said the $100 per day it would take to house and feed one truant in the new facility would be better spent on after-school tutoring programs for at-risk youth.

The report--which contains only suggestions--also calls for allocating more money for existing truancy prevention programs in the county, providing parenting classes and counseling at schools and stressing to elementary school students the importance of school attendance at that level. It found that a program modeled after a Los Angeles County boot camp for troubled teens--called Vital Intervention and Directional Alternatives--is needed locally.

Ventura County Supt. Of Schools Charles Weis said he agrees with most of the report's recommendations, but does not believe incarceration is the solution for all truants.

"For many kids, it just teaches them how to be a criminal," he said. "The key is to diagnose the issues for each kid and come up with ways to treat those individually."

Oxnard police Sgt. T. W. Lumas, however, said there should be a way to punish kids who commit lower-level offenses to deter them from getting involved in crime. The panel cited a report that found 95% of youngsters who are serious juvenile offenders began as truants.

"They need to be held accountable for their actions," Lumas said. "If there was a place for them to go, word would get out and maybe more of them would go to school."

The grand jury also found that the county lacks an effective way of tracking truants. Educators estimate that about 5% of students are absent from school each day, but it's unknown how many are actually skipping school. Because annual state education allocations are based on a district's average daily attendance, truancy could potentially cost local schools up to $40 million each year, Weis said.

In response to the panel's recommendations, Weis said he has asked the Ventura County School Attendance Review Board to create a standard way of collecting data on absences that could be used by all 20 local school districts.

Other school officials said they already comply with most of the panel's recommendations. In the Oxnard Elementary School District, classes are offered on each campus for parents in subjects ranging from improving their English skills to a course on positive parenting strategies.

"We feel pretty good about everything we're doing," Oxnard Supt. Richard Duarte said. "Some of it is out of our local control, and unfortunately a lot of it boils down to resources."

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