Truancy plague costs city millions

A basic chronology reveals the story of how ineffectual The City’s attempts have been to reverse the schools’ rising tide of chronic truancy. In October, District Attorney Kamala Harris pledged to prosecute parents of children who consistently missed at least 20 school days without a parental note or phone call. Parents could potentially spend a year in county jail and be fined up to $2,500 for neglecting a child’s education.

But by January, halfway through this school year, the San Francisco Unified School District showed a nearly 80 percent increase in chronically truant students since the fall. There were 528 students who missed class between Sept. 1 and the end of 2007. That jumped from 294 in 2006 and only 158 in 2005 during the same four-month periods.

The conclusion is that the school administration did not sufficiently publicize the possibility of criminal charges and the District Attorney’s Office didn’t move forward on any prosecutions.

A district attorney spokeswoman delivered reasons for bureaucratic inaction: Officials are required by law to go through a rigid seven-step process of notification, counseling and mediation. And, yes, there will be prosecutions of scofflaw parents at some unspecified time before school lets out.

This might be more convincing if there were any announcements of how many families are already involved in the seven-step process and how far along they are.

It is easy to understand that chronic school absence is often triggered by the student feeling hopelessly behind in comprehending standard class work, or by serious external barriers such as family crises including an increase in homelessness, safety worries or lack of lack of transportation and child care. Family life in The City can admittedly be difficult.

The point of holding parents ultimately responsible for their children’s school attendance is to increase families’ motivation to change problem behaviors. Certainly the prospect of putting parents in jail must be seen as an undesirable last resort. But truancies in San Francisco have long been above statewide averages, making it likely that reducing the established trend will necessitate using both carrots and sticks.

The possibility of facing substantial penalties is needed for focusing the attention of parents on taking action to help end their children’s chronic truancy. But the other side of the coin must be for the SFUSD to genuinely offer a proactive program of effective support services to help remedy the learning difficulties and urban pressures that cause students to evade school. Without real help for at-risk truant students, any attempt to stamp out chronic absenteeism is doomed.

This is an effort well worth making. Excessive truancy costs The City’s already cash-strapped district millions of dollars in annual state funding. And it is directly related to the high societal costs of crime and unemployability. According to the District Attorney’s Office, 75 percent of truants drop out of high school and another 75 percent of the country’s jail inmates were habitual truants.

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