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AG truancy report: Student absences highest among low-income, black students

California Attorney General Kamala Harris unveils a report on chronic absences among elementary school students.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris unveils a report on chronic absences among elementary school students.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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As many as 250,000 California elementary students missed 10 percent of the past school year or roughly 18 or more days, numbers that a report released by Attorney General Kamala Harris called alarming.

Most troubling are high absences among low-income and African-American students, said Harris, speaking at a Friday news conference at the Malabar Street Elementary School in East Los Angeles. 

“Students of color and high-need children are at an extreme risk," Harris said. "What we have found, and new research has unveiled, is that African-American students are far more likely to miss school than their peers.”

One in five black students are absent more than 18 days out of the school year, according to the In School + On Track report. And nearly all of the students who missed more than a month of school per year came from low-income families.

“These children are flashing red lights that something significant is going on,” said Robert Ross, president of The California Endowment, a statewide health foundation. He said the students may be at risk for their health, "perhaps their mental health, perhaps the family or parents’ mental health, depression, addiction in the home, family violence. But those flashing lights need to be adhered to, someone needs to be able to respond.”

According to Harris’ study, absences have cost public schools $3.5 billion in state funding based on daily attendance over the last three years. By the latest count, Los Angeles County lost $151 million in the 2012-2013 school year; Orange County, $55 million; Riverside County, nearly $95 million; and San Bernardino, $84 million.

In a similar report last year, Harris said California school districts and counties "may not realize the true scope of their attendance problems because chronic absence is masked by an insufficient statewide infrastructure for tracking attendance in California." 

The newest report's estimates of absenteeism for the 2013-2014 school year were gathered under a partnership with the Aeries Student Information System.

"Even more troubling, over 50,000 elementary students were chronically truant, and over 40,000 missed at least 36 days of school in one year," the report states. "Absences are also highest in the earliest years of school most critical for developing foundational skills like reading."

The truancy numbers add to ongoing concerns over student suspensions that also fall more heavily on students of color and reduce their time in school. 

To tackle truancy and absenteeism, Harris wants Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a package of four bills that she says will help local schools and communities.

One of the bills would compel the state to include student absences data in individual student electronic files, making it easier to spot attendance problems early on. The measures would also require local Student Attendance Review Boards to intervene when students are frequently absent.

The bills wouldn’t increase public funding to help cut student absences, Harris said.

“This is an issue of getting smarter with our system and [to] upgrade our infrastructure.”