New law to penalize parents of truant students

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Corey Moore/KPCC

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, left, and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris at a news conference announcing an initiative to crack down on truancy in L.A. schools, Oct. 8, 2010.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is pushing forward with a plan that makes use of California's tough, new anti-truancy law. The initiative is designed to turn around student dropouts before they reach their teenage years.

Los Angeles schools have struggled for years with a high dropout rate. The mayor says a collaborative effort that involves parents, teachers and law enforcement can fix the problem before it becomes a crisis.

Villaraigosa says his plan focuses on elementary school students that show a pattern of skipping school.

"We'll come together," said Villaraigosa. "We'll figure out the challenges present here - the opportunities, more importantly - and we'll coordinate and implement this initiative as we're obligated to under the law."

The plan mimics one created by San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who's running for state attorney general. She met with the mayor at L.A. City Hall.

"Let's create - like any other threat - an early warning system that requires us to keep track of this attendance issue or the truancy issue," Harris said.

"Let's go beyond simply defining truancy as five or more unexcused absences. Let's recognize we're talking about a whole other issue when an elementary school student misses over 10 percent of the school year."

Last week, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took the initiative a step further by making it state law. Authorities can slap the parents of chronically truant kids with a misdemeanor - and fine them up to $2,000.

Mayor Villaraigosa says he's working to get an anti-truancy plan for L.A. schools ready to take effect when the new state law does at the start of the new year.

Parents will be offered counseling and other means of support to help them keep their children in school, Villaraigosa said.

If parents still fail after many attempts at intervention, the law allows them to be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charges would be dropped if the student's attendance improves.

Kamala said San Francisco has been enforcing the "Chronic Truancy Reduction Initiative'' for four years, reaching out to about 2,000 parents. It has resulted in a 33 percent increase in student attendance citywide, and 25 prosecutions, she said.

Harris said it is important to address truancy among youths because 75 percent of habitual and chronically truant students will end up being high school dropouts, and 75 percent of the jail population consists of high school dropouts.

Harris also cited a UC Santa Barbara study which found that the state of California pays $1 billion a year for the crimes that truant students commit. Adding in the cost of social services, public health and criminal justice, the tab goes up to $40 billion a year, she said.

KPCC wire services contributed to this report.

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