Report: 1 million California students truant in 2012-13

September 30, 2013

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California is facing an “attendance crisis” in which an estimated 1 million students were declared truant last year, state Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a new report calling for a stronger focus on fighting absenteeism.

“These are children as young as 5 years old who are out of school, falling behind, and too many of them never catch up,” Harris said in a statement. “This crisis is not only crippling for our economy, it is a basic threat to public safety. It’s time for accountability and to craft real solutions at every level – from parents to school districts to law enforcement – to solve this problem.”

Harris unveiled a report that she said provided the first state-wide statistics on truancy. Her findings: 1 million elementary school students were truant last year, and 250,000 elementary students missed 18 or more school days. The absences cost schools $1.4 billion in attendance funding, according to the report, called “In School and On Track” and released Monday at an anti-truancy event in Los Angeles.

A student is considered truant if they are absent or tardy by more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse on three occasions in a school year; a student is chronically truant if they are absent without a valid excuse for least 10 percent of the school year. A student is considered chronically absent if they miss at least 10 percent of the school year – or 18 days in an 180-day academic year – with or without a valid excuse. A valid excuse can be an illness or a medical appointment.

In some schools, 92 percent of students were truant last year, said the report, which was based on information from schools and interviews with administrators. Statewide, 691,470 elementary students – 1 out of every 5 students – was reported truant in 2011-12, the report said.

Rates of chronic absenteeism were also high, the report said.

More than 250,000 elementary school students missed more than 18 days of school, while 20,000 elementary school children missed 36 or more days in a single year, the report said.

Harris – who made fighting truancy a key initiative when she was San Francisco District Attorney – said the California Department of Education should develop a statewide system to collect attendance data on individual students; the state currently has no such method to track attendance. But Harris also said that fighting the problem will require coordination across all levels of society – from schools and districts to parents and community groups and law enforcement, who she said should prosecute parents of chronically truant students under state attendance laws.

Students who frequently miss school suffer academically and are a greater risk for dropping out, research has shown.

Dropouts cost the state an estimated $46.4 billion in lost productivity, lost taxes and incarceration costs, according to information from Harris’ office.

Realizing that the root reasons children miss school can be complex, a growing body of educators is taking a more holistic approach to fighting truancy and chronic absenteeism. Those approaches, which can include home visits from social workers or health aides, seek to help families who may be struggling with substance abuse, mental health, homelessness or other issues that impact a child’s ability to attend school regularly.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has convened forums bringing together diverse agencies to help address the causes of chronic absenteeism and truancy. Torlakson was also named Monday to a national advisory board convened by the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to advise communities and states on strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism.

“I welcome the growing attention around chronic absence because its implications are staggering,” Torlakson said in response to Harris’ report. “Our schools work every day to give students the tools they need to succeed. It will take all of us – parents, law enforcement, health professionals and more – working together to be sure students are there to receive them.”

The truancy report took seven months to research, Harris said. She said she will issue similar reports every year.

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