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Taking Truants and Parents to Task


Students call it "ditching." Authorities call it truancy, illegal and a pitfall to crime and poverty.

Announcing a new program Wednesday to combat truancy in Los Angeles schools, City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District warned parents who fail to send their children to school that they risk their children's futures.

Starting with 22 middle schools in the city, "Operation Bright Future" will mail letters and brochures--in multiple languages--to parents and guardians of nearly 17,000 sixth-grade students, spelling out California's truancy laws and acceptable reasons, such as illness, for students to miss school.

The parents of students who are habitually absent will be directed to attend assemblies conducted by the city attorney's office. Counseling, health care and other resources will be available to get children back in class, officials said. Parents and guardians who flagrantly ignore truancy laws could be prosecuted.

"We hope it doesn't come to that, and we expect that it very rarely will," Delgadillo said Wednesday at Mulholland Middle School in Van Nuys.

The anti-truancy program targets students in their first year of middle school because at that age they are beginning to flirt with diversions from school, Delgadillo said. Students who ditch class are likely instead to spend their days committing crimes and joining gangs.

"By allowing our students to skip school, we are handing gangs a victory," he said. "An educated child will make a community safer."

Los Angeles students have actually improved their attendance in recent years, according to the school district. On average, about 7% of students, or 50,000, are absent each day, but district officials said it is difficult to distinguish excused from unexcused absences.

"Coming to school is absolutely critical. Eighty percent of life is just showing up," Caprice Young, Los Angeles Board of Education president, told an assembly of Mulholland's 600 sixth-graders. In addition to enforcing truancy laws, schools should strive to be places that children enjoy, Mulholland Principal John White said. Existing after-school sports, arts and tutoring programs can help.

"We want to have our school so exciting and moving forward that the students will want to be in school, because when you miss school, you miss out," White said.

Delgadillo's mild threat to Mulholland's sixth-graders that he can be a "tough guy" who might prosecute their parents seemed to affect the students on their second day of school.

"I don't really want to start that with my parents," said Catherine Ray, 11. She does not skip school because "my parents trust me, and I want to show respect for them," she said.

Lawrence Guatemala, 11, predicted that if his parents received a letter from the city's lawyer, "I'd be grounded for a long time."

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