Ceres takes on truant students

CERES -- With almost 20 percent of students ditching school on a regular basis, Ceres Unified School District officials are more aggressively pursuing truants with the help of prosecutors and county courts.

For most school districts, students are considered truant if they have three or more absences in a school year that have not been excused with parents' or doctors' notes. In 2008-09, about 1,991 of 10,200 Ceres students were considered truants.

Ceres Unified's assertive tracking of truants has a twofold purpose -- it's important for students to be in school so they can learn, but it also helps the district increase its state funding, which is based largely on student attendance.

In the three years Ceres Unified officials have taken the initiative in monitoring truancy, attendance is up 1.5 percent.

"Our goal is to get students back in school. Without being there every day, they're losing out," said John Christensen, the district's coordinator of child welfare and attendance. "We can also provide resources to help families and general knowledge about why school is important."

Truancy is the result of several factors -- rebellious students who refuse to go to school, pushover parents who let their children stay home or parents who don't require their children to attend school. It's not just teens missing school; a growing number of younger children are frequently absent. Half of Ceres' 2008-09 truants were in elementary school.

Take the case of one elementary student not making it to class.

When Ceres Unified's attendance liaison, Brian Chandler, contacted the student's mother, he said she relayed her difficulty waking her son up in the morning.

Chandler said he found out that she frequently fed the child fast food for dinner, which was usually around 8 p.m.

After slurping down caffeinated Mountain Dew at that hour, the child wasn't falling asleep until 2 a.m. It was no wonder he wasn't up bright and early ready for school, Chandler said.

Once that was pointed out to the mother, she started feeding her child earlier and he's now attending school regularly.

Solutions to truancy can be as simple as attitude adjustments for students or better parenting skills. Some families just can't afford alarm clocks to wake up on time, Ceres officials said.

When students are not coming to school, officials try to meet with parents and remind them of the importance of school or refer the families for financial or social help.

Fines up to $445 per day

If that doesn't work, officials educate parents and students about the law, that truancy can result in fines of up to $445 for parents and $380 for students every day a child is not in school, and jail time for parents and students.

Most people don't realize truancy can carry such penalties, officials said.

The fines are funneled back to school districts, Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden said. She presides over juvenile court.

As a last resort, school district officials refer truancy cases to the Stanislaus County district attorney's office, which can take parents or children to court to remedy the absences. Though fines and jail time are rarely levied, the threat is there while attendance is monitored.

Prosecutors find that when young people stop attending school, they are more likely to commit crimes, said Jared Carrillo, the deputy district attorney who is in charge of most truancy cases.

Truants often in trouble

"Those who stay in school tend to have better jobs and better lives," said Carrillo, adding that many truants dabble in drugs and gangs.

The district attorney's office also will try cases in juvenile court when the main culprits are the students themselves, a change from the past.

"The community needs to work together to keep students in school," McFadden said. "Children have to have something else to do (besides committing crime) so they're not a distraction to the community and themselves. It's about prevention."

The threat of fines and jail time usually solves the problem, but a few families still protest. Chandler said he has a handful of truancy cases still in court three years later.

"The majority of them do change. Some take longer than others," Christiansen said.

Chandler remembers a first-grader living with grandparents who didn't think school was important. The grandparents didn't show up to meetings with administrators, but once the family was summoned to court, they were scared straight. The child now has perfect attendance, he said.

One high school student had a history of not attending or liking school, so the student was ordered to volunteer in the community. Now the student is in school on a regular basis, Chandler said.

"I try to tell (parents and students) how fortunate we are in this country to have this education," McFadden said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339. Read her education blog at ExtraCredit.