Education

The students were absent from school. So Merced County had their parents arrested

A school bus drives along Glenn Avenue in Merced, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. The Merced City School District board chose new boundaries for elementary schools on Tuesday.
A school bus drives along Glenn Avenue in Merced, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. The Merced City School District board chose new boundaries for elementary schools on Tuesday. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

Three parents from Merced were arrested last week after their children missed too much school after Merced County school districts and the district attorney’s office conducted a sweep to combat the ongoing attendance issues at schools.

“That brings the total for this school year to 23 (arrests/citations),” officials said in a news release from several school districts. “These are all cases in which the children have been chronically absent for multiple years, and the parents have failed to comply with prescribed support services.”

The three parents arrested were 52-year-old Angela Alexander, 44-year-old Billie Breniak and 33-year-old Melissa Barraza, according to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office. Another resident, Mirella Cruz, was not arrested but was issued a citation to appear in court.

Chronic absenteeism in Merced County is a major issue, school officials said.

About one in every eight Merced County students are chronically absent, Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steve Tietjen said in the statement. That’s higher than the state average.

“When a child attends school regularly they have a much better chance of school success and building a productive life,” Tietjen said. “We want the best for Merced County’s children, and I’m happy to partner with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office to improve attendance for our children most at risk of failure.”

Chronic absenteeism has affected all levels of education in Merced County.

One eighth-grader in the Merced City School District has missed 165 days of school since fifth grade, officials said.

“Our schools put in a tremendous amount of effort to provide information, support, resources, and interventions to assist in getting these students to school,” said Brian Meisenheimer, director of pupil services for the Merced City School District.

Several steps are taken before parents are arrested for their children’s absenteeism, the release states.

Those steps include daily phone calls, letters sent home, support from counselors, nurses or social workers, home visits and meetings with administrators, according to the release.

In the Merced Union High School District, attendance liaisons make home visits to find students with truancy issues, MUHSD Director of Child Welfare Lori Mollart said.

If those steps don’t work, parents are referred to the School Attendance Review Board, which includes members of law enforcement, school officials and members of the community, officials said.

If problems persist, a referral could be made to the district attorney’s office for possible charges and arrests against the parents.

Those arrests have yielded some positive results, officials said, noting one student who missed 81 days of school in 2016 didn’t miss any in 2018 after a parent was charged. Another student only missed four days after missing 85 days in 2016 and 32 days last year.

“Prosecution is truly our last and least preferred option,” District Attorney Larry Morse said in the statement. “But, parents who fail to ensure their kids are attending school are damaging those children’s future, plain and simple.

“Sometimes, standing before a judge and being held accountable for their neglect is the only thing that will get their attention.”

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