Truancy enforcement ramps up
Examiner Staff Writer
December 24, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO — Parents of kids who skip class are again in the crosshairs, as the San Francisco district attorney gears up to prosecute a new batch of caretakers of truants.
The stepped-up enforcement efforts are one piece of a large patchwork of programs aimed at ending chronic truancy in schools.
District Attorney Kamala Harris’ office prosecuted parents in six families last summer, after their kids missed more than 50 days of classes. In all cases, the children have since returned to school, although one had to be placed in foster care to make it happen, Harris told The Examiner.
The parents were given court-mandated instructions to keep their children in school and get support for the problems contributing to truancy, or face increased penalties, including a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail.
Since then, another half dozen or so families have failed to keep their kids in school; the District Attorney’s Office is examining their situations closely.
“More cases have been referred to us by the school district, and we’re prepared to prosecute them,” Harris said.
Her attorneys also have mediated more than 1,000 truancy cases before they reached the prosecution stage.
Still, curbing truancy is a vexing problem.
Last school year, 5,449 San Francisco public school students missed more than 10 days of school. Of those, 2,472 were elementary school students, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District. A student is considered habitually truant when they miss 10 days; a chronically truant student is one who misses more than 20 days.
Those numbers have increased slightly from 5,427 in 2005-06 and 5,417 in 2006-07. District officials could not produce new data for the 2008-09 school year.
Harris launched a $20,000 ad campaign in September urging the public to call a hot line if they see kids playing hooky from school.
The hot line received just seven calls that month and two in October, according to figures provided by the school district.
Not every call is going to that hot line, according to Harris.
“Since our ad campaign, we’ve had many anonymous calls and we’re referring those calls to the (school) district,” she said. “People are paying more attention, and that’s good.”
Meanwhile, the school district launched a Web-based program this year called School Loop, which allows parents to see everything from their child’s homework assignments to their unexcused absences, according to Superintendent Carlos Garcia.
“Our anti-truancy programs were designed not to punish people, but to find out why they’re missing school,” he said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as arranging child care. But the D.A.’s effort helps. We can say, ‘If you keep doing this, you’ll wind up in the [District Attorney’s] Office.’”
City officials have floated a number of truancy-fighting ideas, from boosting police intervention to enacting a daytime curfew, but none have moved forward.
One city-funded program, the Bayview-based Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment, is helping hard-core truants transition back into public schools, according to Director Ethan Ramson.
Since its opening at the Bayview YMCA in February, the center has worked with more than 60 high-school-age kids, 24 of whom have returned to public school or obtained their diploma equivalent.
Leader urging adults to tell kids to quit playing hooky
One of San Francisco’s newest techniques for battling truancy could be a very old-fashioned idea: adults telling hooky-playing kids to get back to school.
Ethan Ramson, who directs the Bayview YMCA-based Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment, plans to launch a new program next year in which Bayview district merchants and other adults talk to truant kids, or ask police to do it.
“When I was growing up, if I didn’t go to school, my mom knew about it by the time I got home,” Ramson said. “We want to get the elders involved. We’ve gotten away from that.”
One reason for that decline is that adults increasingly fear juveniles, according to William Siffermann, chief of the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department.
Adults often feel that wayward teens are dangerous, and possibly carrying weapons, according to Siffermann. And with good reason: Many juvenile crimes, from graffiti to burglaries, are committed when youths would otherwise be in school, he said.
Left alone, many truants lead violent, and often short, lives, according to District Attorney Kamala Harris. Nearly 75 percent of truants ultimately drop out. Since 2003, 94 percent of San Francisco’s homicide victims under 25 were high school dropouts, according to Harris’ Office.
“There will be those in public safety who say, “Don’t engage these kids because it may provoke an attack,’” Siffermann said. “But I’m supportive of us elevating vigilance. As adults, we shouldn’t be afraid.”
District attorney promoting truancy prosecutions statewide
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has prosecuted a half-dozen parents whose children are chronically truant, and plans to prosecute more. Now, she’s urging other district attorneys across California to take similar measures to keep kids in school.
Should The City or school district hire truancy officers to round kids up and send them back to school? “I think this is an issue that requires many sectors and agencies to be involved. One of the ways we distribute resources is we say, ‘This is a priority.’ But that doesn’t mean we hire more people.
“My focus has been on truancy in elementary and middle school. And when you talk about [those students], we’re not necessarily seeing them on the streets. When you’re talking about a 7-year-old, likely they’re staying at home.”
Should The City pursue a daytime curfew and take legal action against kids who are not in school? “I’d want to know what age group are we targeting, what would be the penalty and method of enforcement and all of that. I can’t speak to that idea until I get some details.”
Other cities have used a variety of methods for curbing truancy; which models have you studied, and which ones do you think could work in San Francisco? “We’ve been working with California District Attorneys Association, sharing our method with other counties. In terms of best practices in other counties, they involve very much what we’ve been doing: a court model.
“Some jurisdictions have a truancy court. Some may prosecute high school kids, but we chose not to focus on that — we’ve been prosecuting parents, not children. I’m not saying prosecuting kids is not the way to go, but I’ve got limited resources. It’s certainly not because we shouldn’t be thinking about high school kids who don’t go to school. But bad habits start early. The kid who is chronically truant in elementary and middle school will be a dropout in high school.”
Are there any demographic trends among the cases you handle? “There’s no question there’s a correlation between the population you see as truant; it’s the same as a high school dropout, and who will occupy the County Jail and state prison. We’re seeing is a disproportionately high number of African American and Latino youth who are part of that whole trajectory.”
Is it something cultural or are there institutional frameworks in the schools that work against these kids? “It’s not that certain cultures are not interested in education. There’s a connection to poverty, access, support, child care for younger children, transportation issues.
“I always concede that it is legitimate to have a very long conversation about how we can improve public education in our state. But one thing we know for sure is regardless of what you think is the quality of education, if they’re not in school, they’re not getting an education at all.”
What will the District Attorney’s Office continue to do with respect to truants? “Part of what I hope to do is continue to raise the profile of truancy as one of the direct causes of victimization and crime, and one of the first indicators of who will be a perpetrator of crime. The links are direct between a child going without an education and an adult who is sucking up all our resources in the state prison. People think we should pay attention to kids because they’re cute and cuddly. I pay attention because in 16 years they’re going to be committing crimes against us if we don’t.”
Staying in school
Anti-truancy efforts in San Francisco schools:
Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment (C.A.R.E) at Bayview-Hunters Point YMCA: Serves 20 truant youths at a time, offering basic English, math and other courses to help students prepare to return to public school. Launched in March, it has already served 65 kids.
District Attorney’s Office truancy court: Has prosecuted parents in a half-dozen severe cases, and is looking at prosecuting another batch. Also reviews and provides case management for 1,000 other families, primarily of elementary and middle school students.
Stay in School Coalition: Operated by the San Francisco Unified School District, it includes many city agencies and community-based organizations that work to provide support for truants.
Attendance liaisons: School-based staff who keep track of students missing school regularly, reporting them both to parents and to the Stay in School Coalition. Serious cases are referred to the District Attorney’s Office.
This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.