Truants need court’s intervention

When an unsupervised minor sets off a grass fire or trashes a classroom, it seems appropriate that the parents should be required to pay damages that would otherwise be borne by taxpayers. For the first time, that same principle of responsibility is now being applied to the parents of chronically truant students in San Francisco schools.

District Attorney Kamala Harris had parents of four chronically truant schoolchildren arraigned before a superior court judge Tuesday.

During the past school year these students — aged 6 to 13 — each tallied more than 50 days of unexcused absences. One child missed class 81 times out of the 150-day school year.

The parents are being charged with a first-offense infraction carrying a $100 fine, which might not seem like a particularly severe penalty. But if truancies continue piling up, the next court appearance could be for misdemeanor charges of neglecting a child’s education, subject to as much as one year in county jail and a fine of up to $2,500.

Indisputably, repeated truancies are an important school problem and put the futures of absentee students at higher risk. Truancy costs the congenitally cash-strapped San Francisco Unified School District more than $5 million in state attendance funding every year — one day of unexcused absence loses the district about $42.

According to District Attorney Harris, 75 percent of prison inmates nationwide were habitual truants; 94 percent of The City’s homicide victims under age 25 were high-school dropouts; and truants or dropouts are three times more likely to be arrested during their lifetime.

At Tuesday’s arraignment, the two parents of one student pleaded guilty and agreed to pay the $100 fine. Another pair of parents pleaded not guilty and could face trial. The two remaining single parents withheld pleas and promised to cooperate with the courts on a parental responsibility plan. Admittedly, bringing criminal charges against parents of truant children is no simple decision.

Presumably a family that cannot or will not ensure that their children get an education is likely to have multiple problems.

School district Superintendent Carlos Garcia said the most common reasons for truancies among younger students include child care unavailability, parental drug abuse, inconvenient transportation, family abandonment and students just skipping classes. One might question whether or not it is sound policy to add more stress onto already dysfunctional families.

However, a painstaking intervention process takes place before any court action is considered. SFUSD spends months contacting parents via phone calls, letters, individual and group meetings, School Attendance Review Board hearings and offers of help from city agencies or community organizations.

If none of these efforts succeeds in ending the truancies, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the parents need a serious wake-up call for the sake of their children’s future.

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