Truancy Team Hits the Streets : Oxnard: School has just begun and the county’s only police unit assigned to keep students in class has plenty of work to do.
The fall semester for Oxnard’s high school students started just last Monday, but police officers assigned to look for truants already have their hands full.
On a single day last week--three days into the new school year--Oxnard officers caught 16 students ditching classes or off campus without written permission.
Most of the students, from Channel Islands, Hueneme and Oxnard high schools, were stopped by patrol officers as they walked or rode bicycles along streets near the campuses.
Three officers patrol the streets around the Oxnard Union High School District’s campuses and Santa Clara High, a private Catholic school. The officers, who sign up to work overtime on the patrol, make up the only police truancy patrol in Ventura County. Elsewhere in the county, other police departments and the Sheriff’s Department said, officers look for truant students during their regular patrols.
Oxnard police began the truancy patrol about nine years ago in an effort to hold down residential burglaries during the day, said David Keith of the department’s crime analysis unit.
“These kids are doing no good when they’re out of school,” Keith said. “When we put them back in, it accomplishes two things--it puts them where they can learn something, and it keeps the crime rate down.”
Oxnard officers pick up more than 1,000 truants a year in the 12,000-student high school district, said Detective Jim Seitz, who oversees the truancy program.
On a first offense, students are taken back to school, Seitz said. If they are picked up a second time, they are returned to school and their parents are called at home or work.
The third time, students are taken to police headquarters and cited. Their parents are summoned to pick them up.
Officer Tyson Hardman, one of the officers working on the first day of the truancy patrol this school year, brought in five students during one six-hour shift last week.
“It’s definitely one of the busiest areas for truancy in the county,” Hardman said. “You’re dealing with kids who don’t care, parents who don’t know and a school system that’s frustrated. What are you going to do? We just keep cycling them through.”
Among Hardman’s first truants of the day was a 16-year-old Oxnard High School student whose mother telephoned police after the girl refused to go to school. Her mother allowed officers to pick the girl up at home, handcuff her and take her into police headquarters, where she was photographed and placed in a holding cell for a few minutes.
Police acknowledge that the tactic was unusual, but said they and the girl’s mother hoped it would intimidate her into going to school. The girl, however, refused to speak to officers except to give her name, age and address. She was later dropped off at Oxnard High.
Other students Hardman picked up were more talkative, many making excuses that didn’t wash. Hardman took down addresses, ages and information for police computer records--including professed gang affiliations and gang nicknames.
Near Channel Islands High, Hardman stopped two 16-year-old boys walking along Albany Drive and Cheyenne Way around noon. Both sported close-cropped hair, black T-shirts and low-slung black pants.
“We’re going to a friend’s house,” one boy told Hardman. “What did we get picked up for? No reason.”
But neither boy could produce a school identification card or a pass allowing them to be off campus.
Hardman put the boys, both juniors, in his black-and-white patrol car and took them back to campus. School officials told them to attend Saturday school for eight hours and to bring their parents in for a conference.
“It’s embarrassing to drive up to the school in a police car,” one boy said sheepishly.
About half an hour later, another officer on truancy patrol, Joe Kaniewski, radioed Hardman to meet him at Olive and Acacia streets, where half a dozen youths lolled in the back of a pickup. Three of them were truants--one was a 16-year-old who said he had not been to school since January. The other three youths were over 18.
“I’m not even ditching or nothing,” the slight 16-year-old told Hardman. However, the officer took him to Hueneme High, which he attended last year.
“I got kicked out of Hueneme a long time ago because I never went to school,” the 16-year-old said.
But officials there said he had been assigned to the Puente program near Oxnard High School where students are allowed to study at their own pace.
Hardman took the boy home, where he was sternly lectured by his brother and told by the officer to attend a school conference at Puente with his mother the next day.
The district’s six high schools are closed campuses, meaning students are not allowed to leave during the day, officials said. Students cannot even leave for lunch, unless they live within two blocks of the school and have a parent’s permission.
In addition to keeping children in school so that they can learn, school districts have a financial reason for wanting to curb truancy. Schools lose $15 to $25 a day in state funds for every student who is absent without an excuse.
Oxnard’s high school district has special programs to help students stay in school, said Christine Smith, director of student services.
If school officials find that a student is becoming habitually truant, a meeting with the student and his parents is arranged with a “student study team,” which usually includes a school psychologist, a teacher, a school administrator and other officials.
The group may recommend counseling or suggest special programs like independent study or Frontier High, a continuation school, Smith said.
If those measures fail, a student is referred to the district’s student attendance review board. Board members usually include a police officer, school and district officials, a counselor and, if appropriate, representatives of county social services agencies.
After a conference with the student and his parent, the group draws up an attendance contract that is signed by the student, a school official and a district official, Smith said.
Continued violations can lead to a meeting with officials from the district attorney’s office if a parent is at fault by denying a child access to school, Smith said.
The truancy patrols by Oxnard police are an additional measure that may help keep students in school, Smith said. “We appreciate the availability” of police officers, she said.
In most districts, students who are chronically absent are required to meet with student attendance review boards, along with their parents, officials said.
In the 17,000-student Conejo Valley Unified School District, the first step toward identifying students who are chronically absent without an excuse is an automated telephone system, which notifies parents if their children are absent, said Linda Calvin, coordinator of special services.
Repeat offenders are referred to the district’s student attendance review board, which met with more than 200 students last year, about half from elementary schools.
“By the time they get to us, we really know we are dealing with the most difficult cases,” Calvin said.
The Ventura and Fillmore unified school districts have child welfare and attendance officers who oversee truancy programs and, when necessary, visit the homes of truant students.
In the Simi Valley Unified School District, most of the truant students skip one or two periods a day, but some parents cover their children’s unexcused absences, Assistant Supt. Susan Parks said. Reducing those absences is one of the district’s top priorities this year, she said.
In October, the district’s junior and senior high schools must submit campus improvement plans to the school board that include ways to curtail truancies, Parks said.
“We’d like people to realize that in the long run it’s in everybody’s interest to have those kids in school,” Parks said.