SF’s DA, USD, Fight to End Truancy in Schools: Records show problem most prevalent in ethnic communities

by Malou Liwanag-Aguilar/Asianjournal.com

SAN FRANCISCO — In 2007, nearly 5,500 students — about 10% of the district’s total student population — were considered habitual and chronic truants.Although the there was a very slight from the previous year, the number of habitually truant children has remained above 5,000 for the last three years in spite of the implementation of new stay-in-school programs.

This has prompted San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, along with the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Superintendent Carlos Garcia and Stay in School Coalition Coordinator Keith Choy, to discuss and present the district’s efforts to support parents who are having difficulty keeping the kids in schools.During a roundtable discussion with the members of the ethnic media organized by the SFDA and New America Media last Jan. 22, Harris discussed her office’s Campaign Against Truancy in SFUSD, new truancy policies and data on San Francisco’s ethnic communities.

The call on finding solutions to end truancy also stems from the research that a child’s future will be bleak if they are habitually absent from school.Aside from increasingly falling behind middle and high school, criminal law experts call chronic school absence as the most powerful predictor of juvenile crime, which often leads to adult crime.

Harris states the grim fact, “Over the last four years, 94% of San Francisco’s homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school dropouts.”

Truancy data and figures

Truancy is considered as an unexcused or unverified absence from school or class, without proper consent from the school principal or personnel.Under the State Education Code, a student with unexcused absences totaling 10 or more days of school is considered a “habitual truant,” while a student who had 20 or more days of unexcused absences is a “chronic truant.”

While both Harris and Garcia say that truancy is a statewide problem, both agree that it has reached a crisis point in San Francisco that the city has one of the highest rates in the state — higher than the average rates of California’s other major urban areas, including Alameda, Los Angeles and contra Costa counties.Also, records show that truancy is most prevalent in the Asian, African American and Latino communities.

Although data show that truancy is higher among African American and Latino students, Asian and Pacific Islander students comprise 18% of the nearly 5,500 habitual or chronic truants in San Francisco schools, and 324 of those students are Filipinos.

Holding parents accountable

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

But they also acknowledge the various reasons why a student is frequently absent from school.Harris explained, “Presumption has to be that parents do care, but not every parent has the tools.” By this it could mean anything — from lack of transportation and child care, as well as family crises or lack of interest in school.

That is why both the DA’s office and the SFUSD aim to ensure that parents and guardians are provided multiple opportunities to improve their children’s attendance.However, if students still continue to be absent, despite repeated interventions and attempts to work with the students and their families, the matter may be referred to the district attorney’s office and the courts for criminal prosecution.

“The last thing I want to do as District Attorney is prosecute a parent,” said Harris and added, “It’s very difficult to be a parent, so we are doing everything short of prosecuting.”

Programs and policies

Over the past two years, mediation sessions with parents in several schools were done with solid results.But data has also showed that truancy is a continuing problem in San Francisco’s schools at all levels that this year, the DA’s office, in partnership with SFUSD recently sent letters to parents educating them about the problem, at the same time warning them of the consequences.

Aside from educating parents, mediation workshops and other after school programs offer help and assistance.Home visits by teachers, school officers and even police are also part of the efforts to fight truancy.A Stay in School hotline is also accessible by dialing 701-STAY to report if there are any minors loitering during school hours. Community members are also called on to help keep children in school by supporting organizations, volunteer as a mentor and by making day care accessible.

(www.asianjournal.com)

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