More San Francisco students staying in class

By: Amy Crawford | 09/23/11 4:00 AM
Big consequences: Assistant District Attorney Katy Miller talks to parents about penalties for truancy. (Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)
Big consequences: Assistant District Attorney Katy Miller
talks to parents about penalties for truancy.
(Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)
Angel Carvajal has heard all the excuses.
Some students just feel like taking a day off. They oversleep. The bus is running late.

“Muni’s a big one,” Carvajal said. “Muni makes a lot of kids late.”

The student adviser at Everett Middle School in the Mission district is in charge of making sure kids are in class every day. Carvajal tells them there are only three valid excuses for being late or missing school: illness, a death in the family or a family emergency.

But being tough on students is not always enough. Since 2007, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has been fighting truancy by targeting parents. To date, nearly 80 families have faced fines in a special truancy court the office created in 2008.

The efforts appear to be working: Chronic and habitual truancy — defined as missing 10 or more days a year — dropped by a third between the 2007-08 and 2010-11 school years.

In 2007, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris decided to start targeting parents after city officials realized 94 percent of young homicide victims were high school dropouts.

“We like to feel that we’ve had some role in motivating people,” said Assistant District Attorney Katy Miller.
Recently, Miller and officials from Everett Middle invited parents to a truancy mediation session to learn about the consequences of missing school. A citation starts at $100. But under a new state law, parents of kindergartners through eighth-graders also can be charged with a misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $2,000 or a year in jail.

“In California, it’s a crime for parents to not send their kids to school,” Miller told those in attendance. Though 45 families with truant children were asked to come, only two showed up. Carvajal said he would contact the families who did not attend.

“A lot of these kids come from single-parent homes or no-parent homes,” he said. “A lot of them are grandma’s kids.”

Beleta Ely-Taylor, whose son Tony missed 30 days of seventh grade last year, said she appreciated the approach.

Tony missed many of the days because he was sick, Ely-Taylor said, but other absences were due to bullying. Now, she said, school faculty are watching out for him.

“My son loves education,” Ely-Taylor said. “I think it’s going to be a lot different. I’m going to do my part to make sure he’s here every day.”

Effective intervention

Targeting parents and prosecuting truancy have led to a marked decrease in students missing school.
Students with 10 or more unexcused absences in a year:
  • 2007-08: 5,436
  • 2008-09: 4,982
  • 2009-10: 4,291
  • 2010-11: 3,605