Examiner Editorial: Get serious about truancy trend

Because state funding of local school districts is based substantially on classroom attendance, student truancy actually steals money from hard-pressed education needs — at least $10 million in the San Francisco Unified School District. Recovering otherwise lost revenues is worthy of concentrated effort, so it would seem that careful investment in preventive measures would more than pay for itself.

Beyond the loss of school funding caused by truancy, society and individual truants also suffer unacceptably high costs. Some 75 percent of high school truants ultimately drop out. According to the District Attorney’s Office, during the last four years 94 percent of The City’s homicide victims under 25 years old were dropouts, and 75 percent of the county’s inmates had been habitual truants.

But successive SFUSD administrations have been comparatively lax about keeping repeat truants in school, leaving much of the enforcement activities for outside officials. Last year, District Attorney Kamala Harris began taking action on parents of the worst offenders. So far, six parents received court orders to keep their children in school and get support for the family problems contributing to truancy — or else they would face penalties up to a $2,500 fine and one year in jail. Presently, five of the six families are complying.

Now Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi is pushing the school district, police and other agencies to implement a coordinated campaign of truancy law enforcement. At the forefront could be a school-day curfew now being explored by the Office of Criminal Justice. Mirkarimi envisions a citywide Police Department effort to pick up minors loitering in the streets during school hours and hold them at a municipal facility until their parents arrive for them.

Today, police somewhat randomly pick up truants and return them to school — or less often to The City’s sole truancy center, which is noncentrally located in the Bayview YMCA. The school district truancy program director, Keith Choy, said police dislike truancy sweeps because they think their time should be spent patrolling for more serious crimes, and no convenient place to take truants exists.

SFUSD has 65 attendance counselors to knock on parents’ doors, which Choy says is not enough staff for effective coverage. The number of students missing at least 10 days of school was relatively steady for the past three years, but increased somewhat to 5,449 in 2007-08.

Yet halfway through last school year, the district showed a nearly 80 percent increase in chronically truant students. Some 528 students consistently missed class between September 2007 and the year’s end. That jumped from 294 in 2006 and only 158 in 2005 during the same four-month period.

The malignant effects of Bay Area truancy cannot be taken lightly. There is nothing smart about shrugging off our kids’ having some allegedly harmless fun by “ditching classes to play hooky.”

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