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School's out: SLO County still struggles with truancy 

Local teachers shouldn’t be surprised to see empty chairs and desks after the school bell rings in classrooms across SLO County.

School districts in the county have been waging a battle to address high truancy rates, which have hovered at or above 25 percent for the last 10 years, according to data from the California Department of Education.

According to the state’s education code, a student is counted as truant when he or she is absent from school without a valid excuse for three full days in a single school year, or tardy or absent for more than 30 minutes during a school day without a valid excuse on three occasions in one school year. A combination of either scenario results in a student’s being counted as “truant” under the state’s definition.

click to enlarge A LONG-TERM CHALLENGE:  School districts in SLO County have long battled student truancy. Countywide truancy rates for elementary through high school have remained above 25 percent for the last 10 years. - DATA FROM THE CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
  • DATA FROM THE CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
  • A LONG-TERM CHALLENGE: School districts in SLO County have long battled student truancy. Countywide truancy rates for elementary through high school have remained above 25 percent for the last 10 years.

The most recent data shows that SLO County’s truancy rate for the 2014-15 school year dropped slightly from 2013-14, but still remains higher than at the state level. The Department of Education’s data showed that districts in the county reported 14,418 students truant in the 2014-15 school year, nearly 40 percent of the county’s cumulative student enrollment for the same year. 

While that number is about a 3 percent decrease from the 2013-14 truancy rate, it’s still more than 8 percent higher than truancy at the state level, according to the department’s data.

Those truancy rates include both elementary and high school students. A recent report released by the California Attorney General’s Office focusing on truancy in elementary schools showed a similar trend. SLO County was one of 11 counties in the state that had elementary school truancy rates of more than 30 percent for the 2014-15 school year. While the county’s elementary school truancy rate of 31.1 percent, was down from 32.3 percent the previous school year, it was still higher than the 25.2 percent elementary school truancy rate at the state level.

The state Attorney General’s Office has issued reports on California’s truancy challenges since 2013, mostly due to efforts by state Attorney General and current U.S. Senate candidate Kamala Harris, who has characterized truancy and absenteeism as a “crisis,” with serious societal impacts.

“Chronically absent children are far more likely to drop out of school and enter into the criminal justice system,” Harris said in a written statement accompanying this year’s truancy report. 

Students identified as habitually truant and chronically absent do risk facing consequences beyond discipline within their schools or districts. According to California law, a student who is deemed truant four times within one school year can be placed under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court. That court can require a range of consequences, from community service to fines, and in in the case of students 16 or older, revocation of their driver’s license. 

For parents or guardians of habitually truant children, the consequences can be even steeper, including facing thousands of dollars in fines and possible jail time. 

But the high number in student truancy and absentee rates may not be all bad news. The attorney general’s report noted that the increase in rates over the last few years in counties like SLO could be an indication that districts are better at collecting data to get a clear picture of the challenges they face, noting that the slight increase was “likely due to better reporting.”

“State policymakers, school districts, county offices of education, and advocates across California are raising awareness about the importance of school attendance for students’ academic achievement and well-being, and are building infrastructure to intervene and reduce student absences,” the report stated. 

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

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