Santa Maria Sun / News
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 23
Truancy crackdownA new partnership aims to reduce Santa Barbara County truancy rates
BY KRISTINA SEWELL
Leaders from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, county officials, and local school districts recently announced their new partnership in the battle against truancy.
In October 2011, a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury issued a report Where is the Truancy Program in Santa Barbara County? The report recommended that the county, the DA’s office, the Santa Barbara County Office of Education, and Santa Barbara County school districts design and implement a truancy reduction program.
From 2000 to 2008, a successful truancy program was in place—Truancy Intervention and Parent Accountability. The program was operated through the DA’s office. During those years, truancy in the county averaged 20 percent.
A grand jury report in 2012 found the rate of truancy jumped to 30.76 percent after the program was terminated. An additional finding in the report stated that the truancy rate in the county exceeded the rate for California in the last three years.
In 2008, the DA’s office announced that it could no longer fund the program and asked schools to contribute financially. School districts declined and some elementary school officials felt that it wasn’t their responsibility to fund the program.
“We used to fund the program but it was expensive many years ago,” 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said. “The program fell mostly on the county.”
Carbajal said that the original report stated the program was worthwhile and should be considered.
In response to the report issued in October 2011, officials formed an ad hoc subcommittee on Truancy. The recommendation to revive the truancy program was one of five recommendations put forth by Carbajal and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino.
According to Carbajal, the truancy subcommittee spent six months reorganizing the program to make it more efficient and cost effective.
The truancy subcommittee did not set out to reinvent the wheel, but rather examined the ways in which the previous program could be more successful.
“This program is one born from a much broader collaboration and is more comprehensive,” Carbajal said.
The program will include five steps: At the start of the school year, the DA’s office will be sending letters to parents across the districts reminding them that truancy is against the law.
Carbajal said the number of unexcused absences that initiate a warning letter will be determined by the school districts, at which point a letter will be sent home to parents.
If the student continues to be truant, an after-school meeting will be arranged to include representatives from the DA’s office, the school, and the law.
“As the year progresses we will see what it looks like, [but] the first letter usually takes care of it,” Carbajal said.
More extreme cases of truancy will be addressed by a truancy mediation team or the school attendance review board if truancy continues to be an issue.
“Both the DA’s office and the school districts are very clear in the roles they will play,” Carbajal said.
According to the 2012 grand jury report, this program differs from the previous one because the school districts are now responsible for running their own truancy programs.
Because school districts differ in size, makeup, and population, the county recognizes that “one size does not fit all.” With this new program, the primary responsibility of the DA’s office will be to provide support to schools by helping them create more individualized truancy reduction programs.
To keep up their end of the bargain, the DA’s office recently hired new Deputy DA David Chen. A graduate of Loyola Law School with a lot of experience working with troubled youth, Chen will act as coordinator for the Truancy Program.
With the framework already in place, Chen is setting up meetings with local schools and determining time frames for implementation. He’ll be working with the school districts and other local officials to help determine the needs of students; the program requires that Chen and the schools work together to form a partnership.
“The idea is to keep kids in school, not get them in trouble,” Chen said, adding that some of these kids need positive experience and support.
Chen expects to be busy traveling around the county for the first part of the year, but is hoping that this new collaboration will effectively reduce truancy.
The program also includes a county truancy prevention group that will meet every six months to assess the program’s progress over the next two years.
“We want to identify early on how to make improvements,” Supervisor Carbajal said.
He said even if the program fails, this nontraditional approach will help reveal the root of the truancy issue and how it can be successfully addressed.
“The schools can look at themselves; we can look at the families and figure out how we can intervene with resources,” Carbajal said.
Local school districts have openly voiced their support for the program and are ready to make it work.
“Education needs to be a priority,” Orcutt Union School District Superintendent Bob Bush said. “Its important for schools to have support. This is a great partnership.”
Chen, Carbajal, and Bush all concur that it is important for parents to understand that their kids need to be in school.
Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Superintendent Jeff Hearn said the truancy issues are bigger than any one organization can address.
“We welcome the outside help; we appreciate having the legal arm of the community on our side,” Hearn said.
Nationwide, educators, county and law officials, and social workers agree that the costs of truancy are not only financial. Chronically truant students are more likely to drop out of school, resort to crime, and have their standard of life forever altered.
“I see the program as a lifesaver for children,” Carbajal said. “This is an extraordinarily timely program for getting kids back on track.”
Staff Writer Kristina Sewell can be contacted at email@example.com.
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