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Truancy Rampant, Grand Jury Finds

Three districts violate state education code by not tracking chronic truants, report says. Use of attendance review boards is urged.

June 04, 2004|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Grand Jury accused three school districts Thursday of violating state education code by failing to identify habitual truants and concluded that truancy was a rampant, countywide problem.

One of the report's investigators, Alan Friedman, said some children missed 30 school days each year.

The report quotes Huntington Beach Union High School District officials as viewing its truancies as "out of control."

Despite Santa Ana Unified School District officials' insistence to the grand jury that truancy is controlled, the report says the district had more chronic truants in the 2002-03 school year -- 1,284 among about 61,000 students -- than any other district. District officials did not return repeated calls for comment.

The problem is exacerbated, Friedman said, because some districts neither identify nor track habitual truants -- a necessary strategy, he said, in addressing the problem. The county's 27 school districts also record and handle their truancy problems differently, making it difficult to assess the gravity of the problem.

The grand jury specifically criticized the Cypress, Fullerton Joint Union High School and Saddleback Valley Unified districts for not identifying and tracking their chronic truants. But the districts' superintendents said they are addressing the problem.

Education code requires that after a fourth unexplained absence by students a district label them habitual truants, Friedman said. "By not designating them habitual truants, you do not invoke the additional interventions that can take place," he said.

In the worst cases, the county Probation Department can place a truant on a school-attendance contract and the district attorney can file charges against a parent.

The report recommended the use of school attendance review boards, which deal with truants and their parents.

Several districts without such boards were cited for not reporting truancy properly, an allegation that district officials deny.

George Giokaris, superintendent of the 16,400-student Fullerton Joint Union district, said: "We are not violating the education code. We may not use the term 'habitual truants,' but in all cases where students have had the requisite number of absences, we are doing our job and following through with parents and students." Daily attendance is 97.2%, up 1.2% since the 1999-2000 school year, he said.

The report recommended that county schools Supt. William M. Habermehl urge districts to participate in the county's Student Attendance Board system even if they did not have their own boards.

The report also suggested that districts help fund anti-truancy programs run by the Probation Department and the district attorney's office.

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