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Truancy and Consequences

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the dirt yard of a dilapidating stucco house on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, Marcela Tarquino-Klossner is staring straight down into the eyes of a beautiful, frightening bit of Los Angeles’ likely future.

Her dark eyebrows are knit sternly. She is giving it to the boy straight:

“We’ve seen you hanging around outside our school during school hours. That is illegal; you’re supposed to be in school. We’re going to make sure you get into another school.”

The boy is 9. He’s wearing a dirty, billowing white T-shirt, dark sacklike pants and a Kings baseball cap turned backward. He nods at Tarquino-Klossner’s words, his eyes fixed on the middle distance. He is extraordinarily handsome.

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Because of emotional problems, the boy was sent by the Los Angeles Unified School District to a special private school. After four days, he pulled a knife on a teacher. The police came. He was expelled.

For the last month, he’s been out of school, running wild. Tarquino-Klossner, an LAUSD attendance counselor based at Telfair Avenue Elementary School, which the boy’s younger siblings attend, has been in contact with the boy’s mother. But the woman hasn’t shown up for required review meetings with school officials to enable them to act on her son’s case.

So Tarquino-Klossner has shown up, unannounced, in the woman’s frontyard.

The mother sits beneath a tree clipping her nails as the counselor turns from the boy to her. The woman’s eldest son, a man of about 20, shirtless and wearing a rosary around his neck, sits on a large mound of dirt, watching.

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“We’re going to refer the case to the district attorney,” Tarquino-Klossner says. “If you don’t go when they call you for a hearing, you’ll go to court and you’ll have to defend yourself in front of a judge.”

“I’m very frustrated,” the woman says. “I don’t know what to do with him.”

“Neighbors have told me he’s trying to break into homes,” Tarquino-Klossner says, “and they have called the police on him. And he’s been hanging around our school, and we have asked him many times not to do that. So the next time, we’re going to call the police.”

“But there’s nothing I can do,” the woman pleads. “He won’t listen to me. He won’t listen to my oldest son.”

“Well, we are here to see how we can get the boy back in school,” Tarquino-Klossner says. “If we ignore his problems, they’re going to get bigger.”

The counselor hands the woman a business card and touches her arm before leaving.

Behind the wheel of her black Mitsubishi Galant, she recounts in English the conversation she just had in Spanish. She rearranges several files on her lap. For the morning, three surprise visits down, one to go.

Each school day, about 68,000 of Los Angeles’ 667,624 public school pupils are absent, mostly for good reason.

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Attendance is critically important. One reason is that the state finances about 95% of the cost of educating schoolchildren. The amount a school district gets is directly tied to its average daily attendance, which is recalculated monthly.

Each unjustifiable absence costs the district about $18.50 a day, according to Michael Gillemet, coordinator of the LAUSD’s pupil services and attendance department. Most of the department’s 175 employees are involved in battling absenteeism.

Tarquino-Klossner, a slight, energetic woman of 35, has been tracking truants for 8 1/2 years. During the last five, she’s worked primarily at Telfair Avenue, a school of 1,300 pupils.

To the counselor, chronic absenteeism usually signals deep-running trouble at home.

“Most of the parents really have the best of intentions for their kids,” she says, “but they also have to take care of basic needs--putting food on the table, having a place to sleep. Because of problems with that, they’re sometimes not able to attend to their kids’ education.

“A very few don’t value education; they just don’t understand its importance. I have some parents for whom it’s more important to be involved in the church or to be going back and forth to Mexico to visit sick relatives than it is to make certain their children come to school.”

The discussion she’s had with the handsome boy’s mother has given her hope that the woman is exasperated to the point of finally facing up to her son’s schooling problems.

Seven children are in the family. For four years Tarquino-Klossner has tried to keep tabs on their school-going. The family, however, keeps moving to other jurisdictions, then disappearing altogether, then reemerging in her jurisdiction.

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The woman’s oldest son had school problems, but has landed a job. A second son, 18, is in jail, accused of killing someone in a drive-by shooting. Two of the younger children, a kindergartner and a first-grader, already have been in trouble at school. (“They like to steal things,” the counselor explains).

Clearly, what’s at stake in Tarquino-Klossner’s work is more than filling seats in a classroom for this month’s attendance report. “When children are involved with school, they just don’t get into as much trouble,” she explains. “It’s only the kids who aren’t that drop out, join gangs, get pregnant. If they don’t get a feeling of affiliation and identity from school, they go out into the street to find it.”

Poor school attendance, in other words, is usually the first notice society gets that a child is headed for the sort of life that troubles the sleep of the responsible and law-abiding. Tarquino-Klossner and her colleagues aren’t dealing just with the untidy lives of strangers, but with all of our lives.

These kids missing from their seats in class--we’ll likely see them again someday. Imagine encountering the handsome boy in the turned-about baseball cap eight or nine years from now.

Will we be charmed by his good looks as he bags our groceries at Ralphs or strides across the CSUN campus? Or we will be preoccupied with the gun he’s holding on us in some dim parking lot?


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