Arresting parents when kids miss too much school? It works in Merced, report says

Members of law enforcement don’t want to arrest or cite parents for not ensuring their kids are at school.

But officials and investigators from the Merced County Office of Education and Merced County District Attorney’s Office have found bringing parents of chronically absent students in front of a superior court judge has been one of the best motivators for school attendance.

“We’re not in the business of taking parents to jail unless it’s absolutely the last step,” said William Olson, chief investigator for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office. “But in getting a parent to take responsibility for their children, sometimes that’s the only answer.”

More than 20 arrests or citations were made last year of parents whose children were chronically absent for multiple years, according to a news release.

Merced County had a higher chronic absenteeism rate, 12.6 percent, in the 2017-18 school year than the state average of 11.1 percent, according to state education data. That Merced County rate dropped slightly from 12.8 percent in the 2016-2017.

“Students who are chronically absent have a higher propensity to drop out, to be involved in juvenile crime and be on public support and assistance later on in life,” said Steve Tietjen, the superintendent of schools for Merced County.

Since the Merced County prosecutors and educators joined forces more than a year ago, some of the most chronically absent students have turned their attendance woes around, Tietjen said.

For example, one Merced City School District student missed 81 days of the 2016-17 school year, almost half the year, according to MCOE data.

Last year, that student missed 17 days and hasn’t missed any school in the first half of the 2018-19 school year.

A Dos Palos-Oro Loma Joint Unified student missed 150 days last year, attending just a month’s worth of classes. This year so far, the student has missed three days.

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The 2018 Merced County Schools Annual Education Report was unveiled by Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjen on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, at Yosemite Church for the annual schools report luncheon. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

County educators are anticipating the total number of chronically absent students to significantly drop by the end of the school year, in large part due to the MCOE’s two-year collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office.

Tietjen talked about the success of joint efforts during the Annual Merced County Schools Education Report luncheon Wednesday at Yosemite Church in Merced.

Twelve of the county’s 20 school districts have noticed marked increases in attendance, resulting in a net increase of $736,000 in state funds tied to attendance ratios, Tietjen said.

Efforts were focused on high-risk students at the younger grade levels, resulting in about a 2 percent improvement in attendance rates for districts such as Le Grand Elementary and Planada Elementary.

Tietjen credited the results in part to the hiring of a truancy investigator, whose position is paid two-thirds by the MCOE, and the rest by the school districts, Tietjen said. The role of the truancy investigator is to intervene and meet with parents of children who were referred by their schools as being chronically absent.

The District Attorney’s dedicated truancy investigator, Andrea Valtierra, has met with parents of absent children more than 360 times over the past two school years, Tietjen said.

That number pales in comparison to the 7,671 students who were identified as chronically absent, defined as missing 10 percent or more of classes. But the success can be found in the personal stories of students who have turned it around, Tietjen said.

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Merced County Superintendent of School Steve Tietjen talks about the 2018 Merced County Schools Annual Education Report on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, at Yosemite Church for the annual schools report luncheon. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Once Valtierra, the truancy investigator, receives a referral of a habitually absent student from a school, she researches the student’s family by making a home visit and using school records, criminal records and other sources to identify any problems the parents or children may be having.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of informing parents of what services are available, Valtierra said. But sometimes the problems go deeper than that.

Valtierra has helped families with homelessness and other major issues. She has driven families to get medical health evaluations and connecting them with notaries to re-issue documents such as a lost birth certificate.

One of the major issues Valtierra has noticed with chronically absent students is a lack of stability in many of their households.

Some kids have moved several times over the course of a couple years, she said. “I explain to parents how crucial these years are, how important it is to have stability,” Valtierra said.

If her intervention doesn’t solve the attendance issues, the parents are placed on contract with their school site’s school attendance review board, also called “SARB.”

Typically, the one-year contract stipulates that parents’ children will be in school daily, on time. If the students continue to be truant, SARB has the discretion to send the case up to the District Attorney’s Office for possible citation or arrest.

Media coverage of arrests also have an impact, Valtierra said, with at least one district office displaying news articles with the names of parents being arrested.

“It shouldn’t have to get to that point,” Valtierra said, talking about the fear of arrest. “But the most important thing is for the child to be at school, have social interactions, access to resources and learning, so they can successfully graduate to the next level.”

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Merced County’s 2018 Teacher of the Year Janis Edwards talks about how she connects with students during an annual luncheon on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, at Yosemite Church for the annual Merced County Office of Education schools report. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Some school districts in other counties have similar processes for reducing chronic absenteeism with intervention and a partnership with their district attorneys. But unlike schools in Merced County, they try to not publicize or focus on citations and arrests.

“I think it’s motivation when a parent sees another parent did some jail time,” said Fresno Unified School District Attendance Coordinator Kristi Jackson. “But, sadly, when families get to that point, sometimes even that isn’t a solution.”

Personally, Jackson said she focuses on intervention and doesn’t want the school district to have a reputation of being punitive and making it harder on families.

The Modesto City School District identified homelessness and illness as the most common struggles among chronically absent students, said Maria Lobato, attendance liaison for the Modesto City School District.

Out of 348 families identified in that district, just 22 cases have been referred to court through citation or arrest, Lobato said, noting only one of those parents were fined.

“(Arrests are) part of the language that I use to talk about possible consequences,” Lobato said. “But are we really going to fine or jail them? ... If it could be an issue with homelessness, the last thing (parents) are thinking about, with no roof over their heads, is if their kids are getting to school.”

While issues like homelessness and poverty may be prevalent among truant students, Olson said parents who’ve been arrested or cited still have access to all the same resources they were provided through the intervention process.

“I can tell, we’ve found one of the best ways to achieve what we need to achieve,” Olson said. “When it finally comes time, when no other resources or intervention taking place are working, we bring the parents to court and they have to stand there and talk to a judge.

“We need to have (a process) that has some teeth,” he said.

You can view the 2018 Merced County Schools Annual Education Report here.

This story has been clarified to state at least one district has displayed news article with the names of the arrested parents.