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DA’s Office No Longer Helping School District Prosecute Truancy Violations

District Attorney Joyce Dudley says the program was eliminated because of budget cuts, limiting the district's options

Once Santa Barbara County defunded its regional truancy program a few years ago, districts were tasked with developing their own. They typically involve interventions on a school level before cases of chronic truants are referred to School Attendance Review Boards, which recommend courses of action from there.

The Santa Barbara School District hasn’t created one yet, but its new pupil services director, Marlin Sumpter, plans to change that next year.

The district has assumed that the District Attorney’s Office would be involved in the program, but District Attorney Joyce Dudley informed the district that her office won’t be able to prosecute truancy-related infractions because of staffing issues. The District Attorney’s Office will help districts move forward with misdemeanor cases against parents of “chronic” truants, who miss 10 percent or more of school without a valid excuse.

Sumpter said this will limit the district’s options following the School Attendance Review Board.

“The SARB board can still look to community resources to refer the parent to, such as parenting classes, etc., but the District Attorney’s Office does not currently have the staffing or resources to review infractions,” read an email from Chief Assistant District Attorney Ann Bramsen.

Working with the Santa Barbara County Education Office and districts to create truancy programs is a crucial component of crime prevention, but the DA’s Office can’t handle any additional caseload, Dudley said.

“If I had the money, I’d have people, and if I had people, I’d have a truancy program,” she told Noozhawk.

The District Attorney’s Office is only mandated to pursue misdemeanor and felony crimes, and education or welfare and institutions code violations are neither. The office is required to review misdemeanor cases, so some parents of K-8 chronic truants could be charged at the end of the SARB and school-site interventions process.

In her letter, Dudley closes with the following: “I am also very frustrated that we lack the funds to establish a truancy program within our office given that we know children who go to and stay in school are less likely to commit crimes both now and in the future.”

Individual districts were considered better equipped to handle the families involved, so the countywide organization was eliminated and the 22 districts are responsible for developing their own programs, said Wendy Shelton, communications director for the county Education Office.

“For most issues, especially this one, districts feel, from what we understand, that they have a better connection with parents and students instead of someone else coming in,” she said.

The county Education Office still will provide moral support and coordination to help people find the resources they need, according to Shelton.

“The lack of resources has almost become a cliché now, but people don’t realize the toll it takes ... (as budgets shrink), services to students and parents shrink with it,” Shelton said.

For the Santa Barbara School District, Sumpter plans to implement a districtwide process that’s consistent at all schools in terms of student meetings, student success teams and other intervention measures.

According to the district’s truancy policies, the process includes meetings with parents and student study teams, and in more serious cases, habitual truants can be referred to SARB or truancy mediation by the DA, probation and juvenile court.

As of now, there’s a “skeleton of consistency” but no way to ensure earlier interventions are being done in a similar way at different schools, Sumpter said. There is no SARB or community panel, although he wants to recruit volunteers for next year.

This model is more supportive of identifying a family’s needs, and having SARB panel members who are involved with community groups can help connect a family with resources to resolve the underlying issues of school attendance. Sumpter said he only hopes the students and families will take advantage of that.

It’s a huge time commitment to start up and maintain the truancy program, especially with documentation of what could be 100 cases referred to SARB per year, but the districts have enough staffing for site-level implementation.

A truant is someone who has three unexcused absences or three 30-minute-or-more tardies without a valid excuse in one school year. Habitual truants have six unexcused days in the elementary district or 36 unexcused period absences in the secondary district. Parents are notified and required to attend meetings with school administrators and may be referred to community services.

According to state Department of Education statistics, Santa Barbara County truancy rates were at 31 percent, out of 65,382 students, for the 2009-2010 school year. Those numbers include all students who were absent or tardy without a valid excuse three times or more in the school year. California’s truancy rate was 28 percent last year. The Santa Barbara Secondary District had a 35.7 percent truancy rate in 2009-2010, an increase from 30.8 percent in 2004-2005, the earliest year with available data.

In 2009-2010, Dos Pueblos High School had a 38.17 percent truancy rate, San Marcos High had a 46.01 percent truancy rate and Santa Barbara High had a 59.87 percent truancy rate, with 1,368 truants. There were 40 expulsions and 851 suspensions, none of which were due to truancy.

According to the district’s Attendance Support Program flowchart, at 60 unexcused period absences, more letters are sent to parents and the case is referred to the SARB. Santa Barbara High has more stringent rules and actually drops students out of specific classes if they accumulate 10 tardies or five unexcused absences for that one period.

A letter sent to parents in 2001 by former District Attorney Thomas Sneddon said the Truancy Intervention and Parent Accountability Program, started four years earlier, had dropped truancy rates and contacted 4,000 students and families on the South Coast. The program included social workers, counseling services, outreach workers, a public information campaign and youth mentors in the collaboration between law enforcement, probation and school administrators.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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