The Santa Barbara County District Attorney's Office says its truancy program is working

Our children deserve every opportunity to be successful. Education is often a strong predictor of a successful future. Our schools not only offer academic education but other forms of education as well, such as cultural, social, athletic, and community instruction.

Clearly, children who miss out on attending classes are deprived. Research conducted by the National Center of School Engagement shows a strong link between truancy and delinquent behavior such as smoking, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and engaging in theft, vandalism, and other criminal activity. In fact, studies show that one in four expelled students end up in youth correctional facilities within one year.

Recognizing the importance of education for our entire state, the California Legislature enacted laws mandating compulsory education for all students between the ages of 6 and 18 years old. These laws place a legal responsibility on both students and their parents.  Accruing too many truancies, or unexcused absences, can now lead to serious consequences. For example, in addition to school-based sanctions, truant students can face a $50 fine, court-ordered truancy prevention programs, revocation of driving privileges, and even juvenile probation. In more serious cases of truancy, students may also be detained in juvenile hall. Parents of truant students can face $100 to $500 in fines and court orders to complete parent education classes and/or attend school with their children. In more serious cases involving parental neglect, parents may even be subject to misdemeanor charges, which can result in a $2,500 fine and one year of county jail.

While legal consequences may be a good tool to address truancy when it gets out of hand, what’s truly essential is effective truancy prevention or intervention programs.  Truancy intervention in Santa Barbara County now means collaboration among schools, government agencies, and community organizations led by David Chen and Corina Trevino of the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.

Since 2012, the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office has taken the lead in re-establishing a countywide truancy program aimed at identifying the root causes of truancy and treating the problem individually through the use of school resources, counseling, and community-based programs.

In addition to the District Attorney’s Office, the school districts have partnered with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, local law enforcement departments, Child Welfare Services, the Probation Department, county Mental Health Services, the Department of Public Health, and various community service providers. The result has been the aptly named program, CLASS, or Community Leadership in Achieving Student Success. The program was officially reinstated in June 2012 under the leadership of supervisors Steve Lavagnino and Salud Carbajal after the Santa Barbara Civil Grand Jury published a report entitled, “Where is the Truancy Program in Santa Barbara County? (Truancy is Troubling…for Everyone).”

Now, as students accumulate unexcused absences, the program provides a series of letter notifications and meetings to educate students and parents on compulsory education laws, identifying the reasons for truancy, and providing appropriate solutions by referring school and community resources.

After its return in the 2012-13 school year, the CLASS program was able to successfully assist, return to school, and re-engage more than 96 percent of the 6,849 students who were initially reported as truant.  Of the 226 students who continued to be truant and made their way before a school attendance review board, only three cases required court intervention. The success of the program can be attributed to the CLASS program partners seeing truancy as primarily a symptom, not just a crime.         Truancy can be the symptom of a multitude of underlying factors such as boredom, bullying, depression, health problems, learning disabilities, gang membership, domestic violence, sexual assault, drug or alcohol use, or child neglect or abuse. Sadly, these human conditions often remain undiscovered or ignored until a child is deemed truant. Once a child and their family become known to our anti-truancy partners, we can begin to address the problems that have prevented them from attending school.  For example, some solutions can be as simple as confronting a bully and changing class schedules, or as complex as providing structured, long-term wraparound services through county Mental Health Services.

The strongest factor in determining whether a child will succeed in both school and life is parental involvement. Quite often if parents prioritize class attendance and participation, their children will as well. Research by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention emphasizes that effective truancy prevention programs promote regular school attendance by increasing parental involvement, improving communication between teachers and parents, and drawing on community resources to support families when needed.

A child is entitled to both an enticing and high-quality global education program. At school, students can develop essential skills by engaging in arts, sports, and sciences, while solidifying strong and healthy friendships and learning the value of academics, hard work, and studying. But when students and their families need assistance to overcome life’s challenges, they can rest assured that their community is ready to help. Although it truly does take a village to raise a child, your District Attorney’s Office is honored to take the lead in this critical endeavor.


Joyce E. Dudley is Santa Barbara County’s district attorney. David P. Chen is a deputy district attorney and head of the county’s truancy intervention and prevention program. They can be contacted through the managing editor at [email protected].

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