Curbing Truancy in California to Prevent Dropouts

By N.T. Butler

A campaign is underway to curb truancy in California, termed a crisis that frequently leads to dropouts, crime and prison.

“We take this matter very seriously,” Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a March news conference to endorse a series of bills in the Legislature to combat truancy.

She said more than 690,000 elementary (K-6) students – 20 percent of the total – were truant at least once in the 2011-12 school year.

If not stopped in elementary grades, students are more likely to drop out of high school, and dropouts are more likely to wind up in prison, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Harris said.

Five bills introduced in March of this year aim to strengthen accountability by both state and local school districts when it comes to the collection and reporting of truancy statistics. Truancy is defined as any student who is late to class by 30 minutes or more without a valid excuse three times during the year.

“We need to try to get ahold of our young people early and make sure they end up in the classroom and not the courtroom,” said Assemblyman Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, during the news conference. Holden is the author of one of the proposed bills.

“With this slate of bills, we are not putting more students in the juvenile justice system, but inviting communities to intervene before they end up in the penal system,” said Holden.

The proposed legislation would require that the Attorney General’s Office issue a report each year, increase truancy data collection and require counties to create school attendance review boards that issue reports on truancy intervention programs. It also requires prosecutors to issue reports whenever charges are filed against a parent or student to enforce attendance laws.

“We act like it’s a surprise, but it’s not,” Harris said during the press conference. “Almost all of it is predictable. Instead of being reactive, this data will allow us to be preventive.”

Harris said her interest in the truancy issue began when she was San Francisco district attorney. She noted that 94 percent of San Francisco’s homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school dropouts.

In September 2013, Harris released her report of the truancy problem in the state, which was the first statewide assessment of truancy specifically addressing elementary schools and the financial impact on counties.

The report concluded chronic truancy and absenteeism in the state’s schools caused California to lose $1.4 billion a year in funding and suffer lower test scores and a higher dropout rate. The report estimates that society lost $46 billion a year when other factors are added, including reduced earnings, increased welfare services and higher crime rates for high school dropouts.

Calaveras County reported the highest truancy rate at 31 percent of the county’s elementary school students. Yuba County had the lowest rate, with only 4.9 percent of elementary students being truant.

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