Kirk Siegler /NPR
Students at Tenth Street Elementary out on the playground.
Last week, six parents in Orange County who had let their kids miss up to 22 days from school were charged with two misdemeanors: contributing to the delinquency of a minor and failure to reasonably supervise or encourage school attendance. This last charge was born from a new law targeting parents who can’t seem to get their kids to school.
“It’s unfortunate in a lot of senses that we have to resort to prosecution," said Orange County Deputy District Attorney Frank Acosta. "But a lot of the time it’s the message that has to be sent, that there is a violation of the law and we have to follow the law.”
Acosta also said parents need to hear that they could go to jail for one year and pay a $2,000 fine if they continually refuse help getting their kids to class. Five Orange County parents arrested two years ago received probation.
“We’re not asking for jail in these cases,” Acosta said.
It’s widely accepted that a child who repeatedly misses school is more likely to commit a crime or get into more serious trouble later in life. That’s the cycle the 2010 law aims to stop.
But it’s not clear how well it’s doing that – and not all prosecutors are embracing it.
David Kopperud of the California Department of Education said the law is applied differently depending on the prosecutor’s philosophy of prevention.
“Some DAs don’t want to prosecute until the crime is pretty severe,” Kopperud said. “?But there’s other DAs that say: 'you know, if we can be more preventative and stop this kid from being a juvenile delinquent we’re better off,'”
He said doesn’t know of a statewide tally for parents arrested each year.
“We don’t prosecute people to send a message,” said Lydia Bodin, head of the L.A. County District Attorney’s Abolish Chronic Truancy program. "We prosecute people because something has gone radically wrong and a crime has occurred."
She would not file charges against parents for 22 unexcused absences. Last year, her office handled truancy problems for 5,000 elementary school children. She filed charges against three parents or guardians, mostly for absences between 90 and 120 days – that’s between half to two-thirds of the school year. Bodin said most cases were solved after parents sat down with school officials, prosecutors, and social workers.
“We want to, as much as we can, work with families, with students, to address those barriers and we are largely successful at doing that because we’re paying attention to the family and what their specific needs are,” Bodin said.
California school districts have another option short of prosecution: School Attendance Review Boards. They bring together parents whose kids aren’t attending school with prosecutors and social workers. Kopperud said that’s where the most important work in truancy prevention takes place.
Orange County officials said they tried the boards first and only arrested parents last week after they failed to respond.
But California isn’t the only state using the courthouse to battle truancy. Last year in Dayton, Ohio a court issued arrest warrants for 16 parents because their kids were chronically missing school.