Local

Rise in elementary school truancy prompts raft of bills

Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemPTAKamala D. HarrisIsadore Hall, III

SACRAMENTO — Warning that truancy has reached a crisis level in California elementary schools, state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and half a dozen lawmakers proposed a raft of bills Monday aimed at keeping kids in school.

Harris said 30% of elementary school students were truant in the 2012-13 school year.

"California's Constitution guarantees our children the right to an education, yet our elementary schools face a truancy crisis," Harris said. "When children in kindergarten through sixth grade miss school, they fall behind and too many never catch up.''

A child is considered truant after missing school or being tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on three occasions during a school year.

One million elementary school students are truant each year, and 250,000 miss 18 or more school days, costing school districts $1.4 billion, Harris said.

Missing classes in elementary school sets the stage for problems later, she said. Students who don't read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to become high school dropouts, she said.

And 82% of the prison inmates in the United States are high school dropouts, Harris said. "There is a direct match between public education and public safety," Harris said at a Capitol news conference attended by the authors of the bill package.

The five pieces of legislation implement recommendations from a report last year by Harris' office that found the state, counties and schools are not adequately tracking truancy, the reasons students miss school and the best strategies for keeping them in class.

One bill would require the attorney general's office to report annually on elementary school truancy and help identify school districts that have programs effective at reducing absences.

Another measure would update the state Department of Education student record system to include information on truancy and absenteeism.

A third proposal would require that every county create a school attendance review board. The boards exists in fewer than half of the state's counties, even though they have been effective in diverting students from the juvenile justice system by identifying issues causing them to miss school and finding solutions.

A student suffering from asthma or a lingering toothache would be referred to healthcare services, while child-care services might allow a child to attend school instead of staying home and baby-sitting siblings, officials said.

The boards also exist in school districts and can refer students to drug rehab or mental illness treatment programs if those issues are interfering with attendance, said Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena). He introduced a bill, AB 1672, that would require the local boards to annually report their truancy rates, referrals and outcomes of intervention.

"If schools aren't tracking what students are missing, you won't be able to effectively fix the problem," Holden said.

A fifth bill would require prosecutors considering criminal prosecution of parents in truancy cases to provide reports on the outcomes of referrals to truancy prevention programs. "Our efforts to reduce student truancy mean very little when we don't know which programs work and which ones don't," said Assemblyman Isadore Hall III (D-Compton), who introduced AB 2141.

Last year, the truancy rate for elementary school students in Los Angeles County was 20.5%, and the rate was 12.3% in Orange County. The worst rate in the state was 31.3% in Calaveras County.

The Los Angeles Unified School District and the California State PTA are reviewing the proposals to determine whether to support them.

"We know that attendance is one of the important factors in determining student performance," said Kathay Moffat, director of legislation for the California State PTA. "This is a big concern of ours."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Laws and LegislationCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemPTAKamala D. HarrisIsadore Hall, III
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