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Working to solve LA's truancy problems as a community

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A group tasked with finding an answer to L.A. county's student attendance problems will publicly release the findings of their more than year-long study this morning and ask the Education Coordinating Council to adopt its far-reaching recommendations.

The 63-page report emphasizes a more holistic approach to truancy that moves away from criminalization and instead focuses on identifying the root causes of problems students might have in getting to class, whether it be a transportation issue or a difficult home situation.

"Too often, law enforcement has been called upon to impose criminal punishments on children and families, even though research shows that such methods have little impact, and in fact, actually increase the likelihood of school push-out and drop-out," the report states.

The countywide School Attendance Task Force has met monthly since its creation in September 2010 at the request of the council's vice chair Michael Nash, who chairs the task force and is the presiding judge of the Juvenile Court. And it includes an impressively diverse group of community members and officials from the world of schools, law enforcement, and legal communities who all got together to try and solve this singular problem.

And it's a big problem. The juvenile courts see about 150,000 young people annually, and the majority of those are school age, with many of their issues related to school, including attendance problems.

In 2009-10 school year, nearly three out of 10 public school students in L.A. county's 81 districts were classified as truant and several districts have rates above 50 percent, according to data compiled by the California Department of Education.

"I don't have any expectations that we'll plop down this report and everyone will say, 'yay, hooray, let's do it all,'" Nash said. "You hope some of this will resonate with school districts and they'll think we could do this, we could do that, and they'll do what they can."

The report highlights two examples of school districts that have successfully tackled the truancy issue. One was right in the task force's own backyard — the Alhambra Unified School District, which has reduced its significant truancy problem by 42 percent after one year of implementing a new program — and the other across the country at the Baltimore City Public School System.

"It was really surprising, this is so important, the foundation of academic success is attendance, and poor attendance leads to a whole host of problems," said David Sapp, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California who is a member of the task force. "There are a number of programs [to deal with student attendance], but there has been surprisingly little rigor in evaluating whether they are effective."

Recommendations include improving the attendance-data collection and dissemination system at schools so that officials know what is happening in real time and can intervene early and often if a student isn't showing up to class. Other recommendations include improving data sharing between various agencies.

"Once you have good data, and everybody has the same frame of reference, when you talk about these issues you know the extent of the problem, and perhaps you know where and how you need to address that issue," Nash said.

The task force and its working groups plan to continue to meet on a monthly basis to come up with a technical manual that will give school districts a more detailed look at how to implement a program to improve student attendance. Its members also plan to work with the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to get free bus passes for school-aged young people, especially in low-income communities.

Groundbreaking work has already begun across the county. As presiding judge, Nash has spearheaded several efforts that dovetail with the work the task force has focused on. Earlier this month he issued two directives to help reform the Informal Juvenile and Traffic Court (where truancy cases are decided).

The directives allow youth to do community service instead of paying the $250 fine and also allows for courts to dismiss the ticket if there is evidence the youth was running late or on their way to school. Nash said he plans to issue a third directive in the next months that will outline the rights for youth and parents in the court, he said. ("I want to amke sure they understand the consequences of admitting a violation," Nash said. "I want to make sure we're totally clear about that.")

In addition, L.A. city councilman Tony Cardenas has proposed to amend the city's current law to eliminate fines as a penalty for being truant, require LAPD data collection and reporting, and restore a free speech exception.

LAUSD is working with the city's Community Development Department to launch up to 13 Youth WorkSource Centers to serve as outreach centers for truant youths and those at risk for dropping out, or who have dropped out of school.

These efforts come on top of decisions by the Los Angeles Schools Police Department in October to relax its truancy policy and limit the tickets issued to students for not being in class.

Reform backers have worked to gain such changes for years and argued that "get-tough" measures actually work against education goals as students then miss time in school going to court. The report states what many have said over the years, that the citations "result in the unnecessary criminalization and humiliation of youth, with stu­dents being detained, handcuffed, fingerprinted, put in the back seat of police cars, and searched."

Such measures have also been criticized by civil rights organizations for unfairly targeting minority students and creating more hardships for students and families.

According to the report, between 2005 and 2009, the LAPD and the LASPD issued more than 47,000 tickets for breaking daytime curfew. Of the 11,000 given by the schools police within the LAUSD area, not one went to a white students. Black students received 16 percent of the tickets and Latinos nearly 72 percent of them; both higher than each group's proportional representation in the area's youth population.

"The court should be a last resort and not a first resort," Nash said. "Because we certainly haven't been very successful thus far. We're having thousands of kids going to court every year wasting their time and their families time for us to give them a fine that most of them can't pay. It makes no sense. The schools should be working with the kids nad the families to make the school a place they want to go's a community issue."

Read the report's executive summary here.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@LATams).