Students increasingly skipping school

At the halfway point of the school year, San Francisco schools have seen a near 80 percent jump from last fall in the number of students who are chronically truant, despite a pledge by The City’s district attorney to get tough on parents who neglect their children’s education.

In October, District Attorney Kamala Harris vowed to prosecute parents of children who continuously missed school days without a note or phone call. But with nearly twice the amount of chronically truant students reported last fall from previous years, it appears as if parents aren’t listening and Harris isn’t prosecuting.

There were 528 students who missed 20 days of school between Sept. 1, 2007, and Jan. 1, according to the San Francisco Unified School District. That’s up from 294 for the same period in 2006 and 158 in 2005.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney, Erica Derryck, said Harris’ pledge was no idle threat, and there will be prosecutions as the school year moves forward. In order for that to happen, officials are bound by law to go through a seven-step process of notification, counseling and mediation. A parent could spend a year in county jail and face a fine up to $2,500 for neglecting a child’s education.

“Prosecution is the last step in a longer-term approach to getting children back in school,” she said. “The goal of this effort is not to lock parents up, but to change the behavior of parents and children that leads to truancy and chronic school absence.”

Truancies in San Francisco have long been above statewide averages and it costs the already cash-strapped district millions of dollars in state funding. Officials also cite the costs tocrime and the dropout rate. According to the District Attorney’s Office, 75 percent of truants will drop out of high school and another 75 percent of the country’s inmates were habitual truants.

Kids aren’t just playing hooky either. The truancies are oftentimes the result of serious barriers, such as safety concerns or being too far behind to attend. Many parents of elementary-school-age children cite a lack of transportation and child care, as well as family crises as reasons for truancy, school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said.

Keith Choy from the Stay in School Coalition, a group of districts and city representatives, said he’s seeing more homeless families, which could explain this year’s spike. “This is more severe than I’ve seen in years,” he said. “Family needs are getting more severe and our supports at schools are not sufficient.”

bbegin@examiner.com  

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