City toughens handling of truants

Truant San Francisco youths and their parents may face criminal charges if the student fails to attend school on a regular basis, San Francisco’s district attorney announced Wednesday.

District Attorney Kamala Harris — along with Mayor Gavin Newsom, interim Superintendent Gwen Chan and other law enforcement officials — also announced Tuesday a one-year, $450,000 grant to bring staff support to additional schools where truancy is a problem.

Two years ago, many of the same San Francisco officials announced a city-funded, $395,000 anti-truancy effort, called the Stay In School Initiative, with a stated goal of raising the average daily attendance of each school to at least 96 percent. In addition to helping at-risk kids, the program also promised to recover millions of state dollars usually lost due to chronic absenteeism.

According to the latest program report, 2,604 students on average were absent last year from the district each day. Percentage-wise, about the same portion of students were absent districtwide — 4.6 percent — as were in 2003-04, when the program started.

The program “hasn’t paid the kind of dividends we were hopeful for,” Newsom acknowledged.

The announcement of increased anti-truancy efforts comes as the spotlight is on The City’s rising homicide rate and recent incidents of violent crime. Approximately 94 percent of homicide victims under the age of 25 within the past four years — 126 youths — were high school dropouts, according to Harris.

State law dictates that certain procedures must be followed before criminal charges can be filed against a student or parent, which includes making numerous outreach attempts to the parents to resolve the truancy problem. However, after 20 or more unexcused absences, a student is labeled a “chronic truant” and faces penalties such as the suspension or delay of their driver’s license, having to do community service or a $100 fine.

A parent can face up to a $2,500 fine and one year in the county jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, although lesser penalties, such as mandated parenting classes or $100 to $250 fines, would be the consequence for a first truancy offense.

Although the District Attorney’s Office has not sought truancy charges against a student or parent in the past, Harris said she’s prepared to do that now, when all other efforts have failed.

Until now, the main tool of the Stay in School Initiative has been a team of attendance “liaisons” placed at schools where there are high truancy rates. The monitors’ job is to follow up with a caseload of approximately 50 regularly absent students at each school, as well as communicate with the students’ counselors and parents.

The program began two years ago with nine attendance liaisons based in 15 school sites, according to district documents; now there are only six specialists focused on nine schools, as a result of budget cuts, according to Keith Choy, who oversees the Stay in Schools Initiative.

Choy said that although he believes providing students with adult support is the best anti-truancy strategy, some parents and students need to know that students can’t skip school with impunity.

“We spent two years working that way first, by offering them a lot of support, and what we’re seeing is we can offer the carrot, but we need some sense that the stick has some real consequences,” Choy said.

In 2003, a civil grand jury report criticized the district for not doing enough to keep kids from cutting class and noted that San Francisco’s public schools have lost as much as $10 million annually in attendance-based state revenues. Schools are paid approximately $30 per student per day.

Truancy rates

Percentage rates of SFUSD students present from 2003-04 to 2005-06:

School division 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06

Elementary 95.05% 95.03% 94.85%

Middle 96.27% 96.34% 96.29%

High 94.68% 95.15% 94.96%

Districtwide 95.3% 95.51% 95.37%

Percentage of absences that are unexcused:

School division 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06

Elementary 2.19 % 2.17 % 2.45 %

Middle 1.78 % 1.60 % 1.61 %

High 3.52 % 2.96% 3.11%

Source: Stay in School Coalition 2004-05 Year-End Report;

Stay in School Coalition 2005-06 Year-End Report

beslinger@examiner.com

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