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California lawmakers take aim at elementary school truancy

Attorney General Kamala D. Harris speaks at the 2014 California Democrats State Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angel
Attorney General Kamala D. Harris speaks at the 2014 California Democrats State Convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angel

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California lawmakers took aim Monday at truancy among elementary school children with a package of bills that would help families bring their kids to school and keep them there, but it would not remove the threat of arrest if they refuse to comply.

The bills were developed in the wake of a report by Attorney General Kamala Harris, showing that an estimated 250,000 elementary age children miss 10 percent or more of each school year in the most populous U.S. state.

"As the chief law enforcement officer of the state, I've decided to make this a priority, because it is the law of California" that children attend school, said Harris, who sponsored the legislation.

California passed a law in 2005 allowing parents of young children who are chronically absent to be charged in court or sent to a diversion program, joining dozens of states that have passed measures in recent years aimed at curbing truancy, according to the Education Commission of the States policy database.

Educators say truancy puts children at very high risk of dropping out and severely limiting their success as adults, leading some states to take drastic action. Last year, authorities in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made headlines when they arrested 99 parents whose children were chronically absent.

And in Texas, students as young as 12 can be handcuffed at school and fined for excessive unexcused absences, according to a lawsuit filed last year by the National Center for Youth Law, which said the law amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The organization said the state had pursued 113,000 truancy cases in 2012.

The California bills introduced Monday would require school districts to submit a count each year of how many students were truant, as well as an analysis of the reasons. The bills would also set up review boards in each county whose job would be to work with families to provides social services if needed, but could also require parents to go to court in what Harris said would be a last resort.

Arrests under California's current law, which carries maximum penalties of up to $2,000 and a year in jail, are very rare, a spokesman for Harris said, and are expected to be further reduced if the proposals are passed into law.

One of the new laws submitted Monday is also aimed at providing oversight when parents are arrested or cited for failing to send their children to school by requiring local prosecutors to send the state a report showing whether their actions resulted in improved attendance by the children involved.

POOR SKILLS, MORE DROPOUTS

Children who are chronically absent are far more likely to have difficulty learning to read, and those children, in turn, are more likely to drop out of school, Harris told a news conference in Sacramento.

She cited a 2008 study showing that 12-year-olds with 17 or more absences in a year had only a 15 percent likelihood of graduating from high school. Harris also pointed to a California Department of Education finding that truancy is the most powerful predictor of juvenile delinquent behavior, and state data showing that three-fourths of prison inmates are high school dropouts.

"Lacking an education, these children are more likely to end up unemployed and at risk of becoming involved in crime," she wrote in her report.

California law already requires parents to send elementary age children to school, providing fines of $2,000 and up to one year in jail for those who fail to comply after numerous attempts at intervention by school and child welfare authorities.

Many families are unable to send their children to school regularly, Harris said. For example, if a child is in foster care and moved from home to home, attendance is likely to be spotty at best, Harris said. Other families may lack reliable transportation for getting a child to school, or require an older child to stay home to take care of younger siblings.

By requiring increased monitoring of attendance, including an annual report that looks at every school district in the state, administrators will be better able to understand what kind of help is needed, Harris said, and target appropriate interventions to the families.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Ken Wills)

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