Monday, October 31, 2011

(Santa Barbara) County, DA working to develop truancy plan

Goal is to address root causes with help from local school districts

By Marga K. Cooley/Associate Editor | Posted: Sunday, October 30, 2011 12:30 am |

Santa Barbara County, in conjunction with the District Attorney’s Office, is working to establish a partnership with local educators to stop a growing truancy problem.

The effort is in response to a Grand Jury report that shows the truancy rate for the county’s approximately 66,000 public school students has skyrocketed — from 21 percent in 2007-08, to 31 percent in 2009-10.

Truancy refers to a student having more than three unexcused absences.

The upward trend began in 2008, when the cash-strapped county Board of Supervisors decided not to fund an existing program, which would have cost about $215,000 that year and required ongoing revenue of $226,900 beginning in 2009-10.

Earlier this month, 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino and 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal agreed to serve as an ad-hoc committee and work with the district attorney’s office and local school districts to develop a plan to address the problem.

The move is something that local school superintendents said earlier this year they would welcome.

Lavagnino said Friday that District Attorney Joyce Dudley will be studying a program in the Bay Area next month that could serve as a blueprint for Santa Barbara County.

“There’s an enforcement procedure, but there’s also hand-holding to get the kids to class and find out what the systemic problems are that are associated with truancy,” he said.

In the meantime, Lavagnino said, he and Carbajal will be talking to school district officials about their involvement.

According to Deputy District Attorney Gordon Auchincloss, a successful program will require at least some funding from the county.

Beyond that, he said, the parties will have to look at creative ways to put a budget together that can operate such a system.

That may involve private funding, he said, adding that the District Attorney’s Office is “actively engaged in looking at community interest along those lines.”

The Grand Jury report notes that state and federal funding for truancy programs is no longer available.

While Auchincloss points to a bare-bones truancy program in place now that involves sending letters to school districts and parents, Lavagnino said he doesn’t think that approach is effective, especially in Santa Maria.

“I look at the socioeconomic and cultural setup in Santa Maria and I don’t think sending a letter from the DA to somebody’s house saying your kid isn’t going to class would be a very effective way to deal with the problem,” said Lavagnino. “I think in Santa Maria we have to find out why kids aren’t going to class. Are they working? Are they ditching and their parents don’t know it?

“I’d like some real fixes instead of trying to Band-Aid it,” he continued. “We’re kind of blazing our own trail to get everybody involved.”

Pointing to the big-picture impact that truancy has on society in terms of its cost to taxpayers, as well as to school districts, Lavagnino said he wants to fix the fiscal problem “and turn people into taxpayers instead of benefit recipients.”

According to the Grand Jury report, the unemployment rate for working-age people over 25 who have not completed high school has grown from 11 percent in 1992 to nearly 16 percent in 2010. Comparatively, the unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college has gone from about 7 percent in 1992 to about 8.5 percent in 2010, and for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, from 2.5 percent in 1992 to 4 percent in 2010.

“You are required to have your kids in school, and at the end the only way to deal with it is enforcement, but I just want to make sure that’s the last resort,” Lavagnino said. “It’s probably not the most effective way to communicate with most of these people.”

Auchincloss said that the DA’s office is committed to reestablishing a truancy program because it’s an invaluable aspect of criminal intervention and prevention, and because of the value of education.

More importantly, he said, there is a need to understand what’s causing the problem.

“That’s where a truancy program comes in,” Auchincloss said. “Our truancy program as it existed in the past worked to identify the root causes, and used truancy as a bellwether to determine what kids are at risk in our community.”

Lavagnino said he hasn’t done any outreach with regard to local school districts since the ad-hoc committee was formed on Oct. 18, and none has contacted him. But, he said, it’s early in the process.

“I know their budgets are tight as well,” he said, “but I think everybody is going to have to tackle this thing together.”

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