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Fines could curb habitual truancy

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In an effort to get habitual truants back to class, the police officers working at San Mateo’s public high schools are pushing city officials to put some teeth into a city ordinance that would allow them to issue fines to students who skip school.

Officer Keala Keanaaina, a fulltime school resource officer at San Mateo High School, said fining students caught outside school without a legitimate reason may be the only way to reach them.

“Some have this attitude of, ‘So what? I missed class, what are you going to do about it?’” he said. “This is what we are going to do about it.”

Teens who miss school for 10 or more days in a row without a legitimate excuse could have their driver’s license suspended under the new law, Keanaaina said.

Under current city law, school-age children may be stopped by the police, but there is no daytime curfew that allows for fines so mostly students are given warnings, San Mateo Assistant City Attorney Bahar Abdollahi said.

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The proposed ordinance, which is still being developed, is set to be discussed by the San Mateo City Council in January. It would allow officers to issue citations if students are outside of class; exemptions from the law would include if a student was excused by a parent, or if they were attending a school function or a freedom of speech event, Abdollahi said.

The amount of the fine has not yet been determined.

Students who frequently miss school cut into the district’s attendance-based state funding, as well as shortchange their own education.

“Even one student missing class is too many,” said Kindy Stumpp, director of attendance and welfare for the San Mateo Union High School District.

Keeping kids in class is a problem for students nationwide, and districts across the country are experimenting with ways to prevent truancy — from daytime curfews to punishing parents.

In San Francisco, District Attorney Kamala Harris launched an aggressive outreach effort to parents of students with repeated and ongoing absences — with the warning that she would impose criminal penalties if they didn’t get their kids back to class.

Jodi Heilbrunn, senior research and policy analyst with National Center For School Engagement — a Denver-based group that studies best practices in countering truancy, said punishment might not work for all truant students.

“It may make a difference for the stubborn and defiant kids,” Heilbrunn said. “But for the one who has to stay home with siblings or ill grandparents, a punishment is not going to work.”

Students identified as possible habitual truants are brought in for a meeting with the assistant principal, the student’s parents and himself, Keanaaina said. The discussion is aimed at finding out why they are not attending school.

There are more than 100 students categorized as truants at San Mateo High School, with a population of roughly 1,400, he said.

Truants are defined as students who miss three consecutive days of class, Keanaaina said.

“It’s more than picking a few names out of a hat,” he said. “We are talking about students who show a history of skipping.”

 

What is an excused absence?

A pupil is excused from school when the absence is:

• Due to his/her illness.

• Due to quarantine under the direction of a county or city health officer.

• For the purpose of having medical, dental, optometrical or chiropractic services rendered.

• For the purpose of attending the funeral service of a member of his/her immediate family, so long as the absence is not more than one day if the service is conducted in California and not more than three days if the service is conducted outside of California.• For the purpose of jury duty in the manner provided for by law.

• Due to the illness or medical appointment during school hours of a child of whom the pupil is the custodial parent.

• For justifiable personal reasons, including but not limited to: An appearance in court; attendance at a funeral service; observance of a holiday or ceremony of his/her religion; attendance at religious retreats; attendance at an employment conference; attendance at an educational conference on the legislative or judicial process offered by a nonprofit organization; when the pupil’s absence has been requested in writing by the parent or guardian and approved by the principal or a designated representative pursuant to uniform standards established by the Governing Board.

• For the purpose of serving as a member of a precinct board for an election pursuant to Section 12302 of the Election Code.

Source: San Mateo Union High School District

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