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Attorney General wants to shine light on problem of child truancy

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San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris wants to bring attention to the problem of truancy

A new report released in Los Angeles Monday by the state's attorney general seeks to shine a light on truancy - pointing out that one million elementary school kids racked up three or more unexcused absences last year.

In a press conference, Kamala Harris said truancy cost California school districts a combined $1.4 billion in funding from the state last year because they're paid based on student attendance.

Harris also wanted to draw attention to what she said are the costs to society as some truants become dropouts.

"There is a direct connection between this issue of elementary school truancy and who will invariably be a victim, if not a perpetrator of crime," she said at the beginning of a daylong symposium in downtown Los Angeles with other law enforcement officials, educators, and social service agencies on how to combat the problem of truancy.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson attended the event. In a statement issued after its ended, Torlakson said he'd organized similar events to shine the spotlight on the issue and plans to work with courts officials to find out what more law enforcement can do to keep students in school.

"I welcome the growing attention around chronic absence, because its implications are staggering," he said.

In 2011, LAPD stopped issuing truancy tickets to students on or near schools after the first bell rang. Student rights advocates said the former policy led to the issuing of 47,000 tickets to mostly Latino and African American students between 2004 and 2009. The court dates and fines for those tickets, advocates said, were a heavy burden on low income families.

Educators agree that improving discipline policies and delving into the root causes of truancy, such as poor health, lack of transportation, or joblessness, was a better solution than punishment.

Harris said districts should provide an intervention at the family level after the first unexcused absence - and stay away from prosecuting families except for the most extreme truancy cases.

She also said prosecutors across the state need to have more face-to-face meetings with students and parents through "student attendance review boards."

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest, has been working to cut back on suspensions for students who are truant or otherwise exhibit "willful defiance," according to Superintendent John Deasy. He said the district has cut those suspensions by 75 percent in two years.

"We are certainly keeping vastly more students in schools than there were before," Deasy said.

Truancy rates at the district went up to 43 percent last year from 28 in 2009-10, the district reports.

During Monday's press conference, Harris said she wants to improve how the state tracks truants.

Los Angeles student rights activist Maisie Chin said she doesn't see how that will help.

"It is not just about numbers, it is not just about tracking, and it is certainly not just about procedure," she said. "We really have to surround these communities with better resources, better schools."

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