Truant kids’ parents may pay

Last school year, more than 5,400 San Francisco public school students missed more than 10 days of class — no phone calls, no notes. They were simply no-shows.

It is a chronic problem plaguing the school district, and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris is taking a hard line with parents whose children repeatedly fail to show up to school.

Harris said she is prepared to prosecute parents whose children, especially those at the elementary level, have more than 10 unexcused absences in a school year. Hundreds of children fall into that category, and Harris said she could begin prosecuting parents as early as next year.

“This is not an idle threat,” Harris said Monday. “We’re actually very serious in terms of the likelihood of prosecuting a parent.”

Under state law, a parent of a chronically truant student can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that carries a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,500.

School officials say the number of truant elementary school students is particularly alarming: In 2006-07, nearly 600 kindergarten through fourth-grade students missed more than 20 days of class, said Keith Choy, who oversees the district’s Stay in School Coalition.

“That’s not the kids’ fault at that point,” Choy said.

Many parents of elementary children cite a lack of transportation and child care, as well as family crises as reasons for truancy.At the secondary level, students say they are bored with class or too far behind to attend, district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said.

Talk of criminally charging parents of truant children has been ongoing in San Francisco for a couple of years. While other counties conduct “truancy sweeps” in which dozens of parents are arrested each year, San Francisco has long taken a softer approach to the issue by offering a series of programs to persistently truant students.

However, Harris and school officials said prosecutions could come in the near future as the number of habitually truant children has remained above 5,000 for the last three years, even with the implementation of new stay-in-school programs.

In 2006-07, there were 5,417 students — about 10 percent of the district’s total population of 55,000 students — considered habitual and chronic no-shows. It is a decrease from 5,494 students in 2005-06 and 5,628 students in 2004-05.

In 2003, a civil grand jury report criticized the district for not doing enough to keep kids from cutting class. District attorneys from Harris’ office have been holding meetings with parents of truant children over the last couple of years to discuss the importance of attending school.

About 40 families were involved in the program at Sanchez Elementary School, in The City’s Castro district, last year. As a result, the school’s average daily attendance has increased by 1 percent.

By the numbers

55,000 Students enrolled in SFUSD

20 Days a student has to miss to be considered chronically truant

5,417 Students in 2006-07 considered chronically or habitually truant

5,494 Students in 2005-06 considered chronically or habitually truant

5,628 Students in 2004-05 considered chronically or habitually truant

$10 million Amount district has lost in state revenues for attendance as a result of truant students

– Source: SFUSD, District Attorney’s Office

arocha@examiner.com

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