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California truancy is at 'crisis' level, says attorney general

Kamala Harris' report says one-quarter of elementary students are truant, jeopardizing their academic futures and adding to school funding problems.

September 30, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe
  • California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris says the truancy rate for elementary school students has reached a crisis level.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris says the truancy rate for elementary… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

One out of every four California elementary school students — nearly 1 million total — are truant each year, an "attendance crisis" that is jeopardizing their academic futures and depriving schools of needed dollars, the state attorney general said in a report to be released Monday.

In her first annual study of elementary student truancy, Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said school districts lost $1.4 billion in 2010-11 in state education dollars, which are distributed based on student attendance. Those losses amounted to $340 million in L.A. County, the report said, exacerbating the financial crisis in recent years that has resulted in deep cuts to school staff and programs.

"The California Constitution guarantees every child the right to an education, yet we are failing our youngest children, as early as kindergarten," Harris said in a statement. "This crisis is not only crippling for our economy, it is a basic threat to public safety."

Among counties, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and Calaveras had the highest truancy rates — about 30% — last year. Los Angeles County's rate was 20.5%, with about 166,000 truant elementary students.

Among school districts, three of the five elementary campuses with truancy rates at 90% or higher were in the Pasadena Unified School District, where the overall truancy rate increased to 66% last year from 17% in 2008-09. Eric Sahakian, Pasadena's director of child welfare, attendance and safety, said "dramatic budget cuts" in staff handling attendance as well as financial hardship among families during the recession contributed to the district's elevated rates. The system has launched a new attendance improvement plan this year.

Los Angeles Unified's overall truancy rates also rose during the recession to 43% last year from 28% in 2009-10 and lost $126 million in state dollars this year. Part of the problem, district officials said, was the cut of nearly 30% of its specialized attendance counselors over the last five years. But under a program launched last year, the rates have started to decline.

State law, which requires children ages 6 to 18 to attend school, defines truants as those who are absent or tardy more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse three times in a school year. Those absent without a valid excuse for 10% of the school year are considered chronically truant and at high risk of academic failure.

One 2011 study of 640 California children found that only 17% of students chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were reading at the third-grade level by then, compared with 64% of those who attended regularly. More than 250,000 elementary students were chronically truant in 2011-12, the report said.

Harris' interest in the issue was sparked when, as San Francisco district attorney, she found that a disproportionate number of criminals and crime victims were high school dropouts whose academic failure began much earlier, said Brian Nelson, special assistant attorney general.

But some community advocates were wary about the deepening participation of law enforcement in truancy issues. Ashley Franklin of the Community Rights Campaign, a Los Angeles organizing effort to minimize such involvement in schools, said legal threats to truant parents or their students would have a negative effect.

Harris and others say law enforcement can make a difference, however. When Harris began sending notices informing parents they could be subject to criminal penalties if they don't send their children to school, truancy rates fell 40%, Nelson said.

The L.A. city attorney's office and L.A. Unified send a similar letter to all families at the start of the school year.

But officials stressed that prosecution is a last resort. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office prosecuted only four parents in the last year — including one Los Angeles man who refused to send his three children to school for at least three years — but has assisted more than 3,400 families in 350 schools through its Abolish Chronic Truancy program, said Lydia Bodin, the deputy district attorney who heads it. Working with families to inform them of the consequences of excessive absences and connecting them to needed help, officials say they have reduced truancy by more than half in selected elementary schools.

L.A. Unified is also shifting from a punitive to supportive approach, said Debra Duardo, the district's executive director of student health and human services. A new program particularly focusing on kindergartners and ninth-graders — whose truancy rates are highest — features close monitoring of attendance data, parent meetings, and increased use of incentives and services.

Harris' report calls for similar strategies, noting the need to support families struggling with key causes of truancy: poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.

Such supportive approaches offer the best chance for progress, said Elicia Frank, a Los Angeles paralegal and single mother of a son who became chronically truant in high school and dropped out. Frank said she went through cycles of poverty and homelessness. She did not always have the money to buy clothes for her three children, one reason her son began to balk at attending class, and they frequently switched schools because they often moved.

Eventually, Frank got back on her feet — and so did her son, after she got help from educators, social workers, community activists and law enforcement. Israel, 20, is studying for a high school equivalency degree and found a job as a soccer and crisis prevention coach.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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