By Melody Gutierrez
SACRAMENTO — California is in the midst of a “truancy crisis” that needs to be stopped where it starts: in elementary school, state Attorney General Kamala Harris said last week as she joined lawmakers to announce a package of bills to help the state better collect truancy data.
More than 690,000 elementary school students — some 20 percent of the state’s K-6 students — were truant at least once during the 2011-12 school year, according to a report compiled by Harris’ office. Truancy is defined in California as when a student is absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse three times during a school year.
If it’s not stopped at the elementary level, students are more likely to drop out of high school, and dropouts are more likely to end up in prison, Harris said.
“We take this matter very seriously,” Harris said as she stood with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and six lawmakers on March 10 to talk about five proposed truancy bills. “A child going without an education is tantamount to a crime.”
The bills would require the attorney general to issue a report on truancy each year, enhance truancy data collection to monitor attendance, require every county to create School Attendance Review Boards that issue reports on intervention efforts and require prosecutors to issue a report when charges against a parent or student are considered to enforce attendance laws.
Harris said California needs to better collect student attendance data and put it to use instead of waiting for that person to be deemed a menace to society and pouring billions into the criminal justice system.
“Very little that happens in our society in terms of the systems we see in government is a surprise,” Harris said.
“We act like it’s a surprise, but it’s not. Almost all of it is predictable. Instead of being reactive, this data will allow us to be preventive.”
The announcement comes six months after Harris’ office released a report that detailed the extent of truancy and absenteeism in California schools and the resulting loss of $1.4 billion a year in funding, lower test scores and higher dropout rates.
Harris’ office summarized the societal loss at $46 billion a year when considering reduced earnings, increased welfare services and higher crime rates among high school dropouts.
Class not court
“We need to try to get ahold of our young people early and make sure they end up in the classroom and not the courtroom,” said Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, who authored one of the bills.
“With this slate of bills, we are not putting more students in the juvenile justice system, but inviting communities to intervene before they end up in the penal system.”
Harris’ report was the first statewide assessment of the truancy crisis, specifically examining elementary schools in each county and relaying the financial impact.
According to the report, Calaveras County led the state with a 31 percent truancy rate among 3,184 elementary students in 2012, while Yuba County posted a 4.9 percent truancy rate among its 8,159 students.
According to the state Department of Education, the truancy rates for Yolo County’s school districts in 2011-12, were 15.3 percent for Davis; 19.2 percent for Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento; 28.4 percent for Woodland; 51.5 percent for Winters; and 23.5 percent for Yolo County as a whole.
While district attorney of San Francisco, Harris sharply reduced truancy rates by prosecuting parents and sending letters to every family in the school district warning them of the consequences of truancy.
She said her interest in truancy arose from a startling statistic: 94 percent of the city’s homicide victims under age 25 were high school dropouts.
— Reach Melody Gutierrez at [email protected]