Lawmakers are taking aim at elementary school truancy with a package of bills that would help families bring their kids to school and keep them there, but it would not remove the threat of arrest if they refuse to comply.
In California, the bills were developed in the wake of a report by Attorney General Kamala Harris, showing that an estimated 250,000 elementary age children miss 10 percent or more of each school year in the most populous U.S. state.
“As the chief law enforcement officer of the state, I’ve decided to make this a priority, because it is the law of California” that children attend school, said Harris, who sponsored the legislation.
California passed a law in 2005 allowing parents of young children who are chronically absent to be charged in court or sent to a diversion program, joining dozens of states that have passed measures in recent years aimed at curbing truancy, according to the Education Commission of the States policy database.
Educators say truancy puts children at very high risk of dropping out and severely limiting their success as adults, leading some states to take drastic action. Last year, authorities in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, made headlines when they arrested 99 parents whose children were chronically absent.
And in Texas, students as young as 12 can be handcuffed at school and fined for excessive unexcused absences, according to a lawsuit filed last year by the National Center for Youth Law, which said the law amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The organization said the state had pursued 113,000 truancy cases in 2012.
The California bills introduced Monday would require school districts to submit a count each year of how many students were truant, as well as an analysis of the reasons. The bills would also set up review boards in each county whose job would be to work with families to provides social services if needed, but could also require parents to go to court in what Harris said would be a last resort.
Arrests under California’s current law, which carries maximum penalties of up to $2,000 and a year in jail, are very rare, a spokesman for Harris said, and are expected to be further reduced if the proposals are passed into law.
One of the new laws submitted Monday is also aimed at providing oversight when parents are arrested or cited for failing to send their children to school by requiring local prosecutors to send the state a report showing whether their actions resulted in improved attendance by the children involved.
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