When high school students are chronically absent from classes, they could be facing a panel of stern-faced educators trying to determine what's making them truant.
The Merced Union High School District fields a Student Attendance Review Board that meets monthly with truant students and their parents. The SARB panel considered 47 cases in the last school year and can refer habitually absent students and their parents to the District Attorney's Office for prosecution.
Joyce Harrison, Atwater High School associate principal who oversees attendance and safety issues, said SARB is a progressive process that lets students and parents know that educators are serious about kids staying in school.
"I see it as a necessary step," Harrison said. "We do a fairly good job of making us be understood."
Merced Police Officer Ben Dalia, school resource officer at East Campus Educational Center, said truancy is a community issue. "If we want to solve crime problems," Dalia said, "we really need to get them in school. If they (students) aren't in school, they could do bad things out there."
Dalia has been an school resource officer for five years and makes home visits along with truancy arrests. SARB panelists give truant students information they might not know, as far as the consequences of missing school.
In the 2010-11 school year, 10,000 students on campuses in Merced, Atwater and Livingston had 13,973 truancy days. The district's dropout rate for 2009-10 was 10.3 percent.
Kelly Bentz, the district's program administrator for child welfare, attendance and safety, moderates the SARB hearings held in the Merced City Council chambers.
Panelists concede the hearings can appear formal and intimidating, and earlier attendance sessions at schools are a much friendlier environment. Bentz said the district has had a SARB for three years.
Jennifer Madkins, a deputy Merced County probation officer, is a SARB member and assigned to the East Campus Education Center. She must sign off on contracts the panel develops with students and their parents to keep them in school.
"SARB is a valuable resource as an early prevention program so kids won't be truant," Madkins said. "We tell them what possibly can happen if their habitual truancy continues. We are able to explain the process of probation and how it affects students."
Bentz said the district is looking forward to involving the county's mental health services more often in the SARB process. In many cases, she said, significant mental health issues play a role in truancy.
Ter Yang, a registered nurse and district health services supervisor, is a SARB panelist. During hearings, she tries to see if there are medical or mental health problems that might affect a student's attendance.
Yang confirms that depression and anxiety are the predominant mental health issues confronting truants. She said many students have never sought treatment for such problems.
Mike Abarca, a Golden Valley High School counselor and anger management instructor, is beginning service on the SARB panel. He said it's interesting to see the different angles that come to bear in truancy situations.
"The same message comes through -- we care about kids," Abarca said. "We make sure they don't sell themselves short and show how important a role they play in their family's well-being."
And how important it is for them to show up for class.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.