Proposed California Law Would Criminalize Truancy

Filed under: In The News, Day Care & Education, Education: Big Kids, Education: Tweens, Education: Teens

Truant kids drinking alcohol

It's all fun and games until the the truancy officer comes around. Credit: Getty Images

So, your kid skips class a few times a year. Maybe he's late a couple times a month. And, once in a while, he just bails on school altogether. Parents who think that's no big deal might have to reconsider if a proposed bill passes that could end up costing Mom and Dad thousands of dollars -- and even months behind bars.

The bill pending in the California Senate would make truancy a criminal misdemeanor, subjecting parents of "chronically truant" children to fines of up to $2,000 and jail time of as long as one year, reports the Oakland Tribune.

During the last school year, the Oakland, Calif., school district reported more than 5,000 children in kindergarten through eighth grade -- 18 percent of enrollment -- missed at least five full days of school without excused absences, the Tribune reports. And about 2,000 children missed 10 days or more, unexcused.

In Contra Costa County, Calif., 5,600 children in nine elementary school districts -- 22 percent of enrolled students -- had at least three tardies or unexcused absences during the 2008-2009 school session, the newspaper says.

The proposed legislation would apply to parents whose children have missed 10 percent of the school year, and would add California to the ranks of states that already have strict truancy laws on the books, like Florida and Texas, the Tribune reports.

Kamala Harris, the San Francisco district attorney who was responsible for drafting the pending legislation, oversees a truancy program in the city that she credits with a dramatic rise in school attendance, according to the newspaper.

"I think that everyone realized that for too long, issues that affect children were seen as small issues -- maybe because children are small -- instead of taking these on as big issues," Harris tells the Tribune. "You know who that chronically truant 6-year-old is going to be? The 'menace to society' that everyone will be knocking on our door about, asking me to prosecute."

The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that truancy left unchecked is a proven risk factor for serious juvenile delinquency, and is also linked to numerous negative outcomes in adulthood.

The California bill requires school districts to provide parents with support services to address the truancy, with a referral to the justice system, the Tribune reports. Parents sent to court can plead guilty and receive a "deferred judgment," allowing for dismissal of the charge if the child's attendance improves and they have followed court orders -- which may include parenting classes and substance abuse treatment.

Teresa Drenick, deputy district attorney for Alameda County, Calif., tells the Tribune parents often wind up in truancy court because "their life issues have gotten so overwhelming to them that getting their child to school becomes a very low priority."

Many of these parents have physical or mental health problems, have no permanent home and rely on public transit to get their child to school, she says, while some also suffer from domestic violence and homelessness.

Drenick tells the Tribune it's important for the court to intercede when parents have not responded to the school district, citing a stricter truancy policy instituted in Alameda County in 2004 that has yielded significant improvements in attendance for 80 percent of families.

However, not everyone believes the proposed truancy law will benefit children and their families.

Adrian Kirk, who directs the Oakland school district office that works with truant children and their families, tells the Tribune the bill is too punitive. He says since sending your child to school is such a basic thing, a parent must have serious problems if they're not doing so -- problems he says the threat of punishment is not necessarily going to solve.

"The circumstances of their lives haven't changed one iota, and now we're going to punish them harder," Kirk tells the Tribune.

Related: Missed Parent-Teacher Conferences Could Mean Jail Time for Parents

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.