Parents must answer for students’ absences

CNJ staff photo: Sharna Johnson Assistant District Attorney Ben Cross examines a truancy file on a local junior high school.

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers

It will take five unexcused absences to get Junior on the radar. Ten will have Mom and Dad meeting with Assistant District Attorney Ben Cross and others in law enforcement. If that step is unsuccessful, it could mean jail.

Charging parents with a crime is an admitted scare tactic Cross hopes will keep more kids in school where they belong.

“If I had zero prosecutions of this law, that would be OK,” Cross said, explaining he would rather just talk to parents about their child’s absences and find ways to solve the issue outside of court.

Parental accountability is the key, combined with helping kids understand the importance of staying in school at an early age, Cross said. A graduate of Clovis schools himself, Cross plans to go into elementary schools and give presentations to students this year.

Last year the district attorney’s office, under the guidance of Cross, spearheaded its Abolish Chronic Truancy program, more than quadrupling cases filed against parents of truant students.

The reason for the district attorney’s office push is simple. Approximately 75 percent of prison inmates nationwide did not graduate from high school, and statistics show truants have a higher likelihood of engaging in criminal conduct, District Attorney Matt Chandler said.

“In almost all of the homicide cases we have prosecuted, you can see a distinct pattern. They (the convicted murderers) were chronic truants and ended up dropping out of school,” Chandler said.

“As the district attorney’s office, we’re very interested in the fact that if kids aren’t in school, they’re probably in trouble,” he said.

The program’s teeth come from a truancy statute enacted in July 2004 that holds parents responsible for their child’s school attendance, Cross said.

While it was previously a seldom enforced law, prosecutors have made it the center point of the ACT program.

Penalties can range from a fine up to $100 for a first offense to $500 and six months in jail for a second or subsequent offense.

Cross said when a child has five unexcused absences, a certified letter is sent to the parents in an attempt to arrange a meeting to discuss the absences. After 10 unexcused absences, a second certified letter is sent informing them any more absences will prompt referral to the Juvenile Probation Office.

If JPO determines a parent or guardian is responsible for the absences, the case is referred to the district attorney’s office and the case is reviewed for prosecution.

In one case a child was not attending school because a parent was incarcerated. In another case, the child was having difficulties and had been kept home because of legitimate learning issues that needed to be diagnosed and addressed.

In other cases the families suffer financial hardships and need to be pointed to community resources that will help stabilize their living situation.

In most cases, Cross said, the initial letter is all that’s needed. Parents respond quickly and he doesn’t see the child’s name surface again. That’s success, he said.

Knowing he can get involved to help these families meet their needs so their children can successfully attend school makes it worthwhile, Cross said.

He hopes through his personal familiarity with the school system he can enrich the program’s effectiveness.

“I wanted to give back to the community that raised me. I know what it’s like to go to school in Clovis,” he said.

By the numbers

Percent of prison inmates nationwide who did not graduate from high school

Truancy cases filed against parents in Curry County last year

Duration in weeks of a parenting class offenders must attend

Parents convicted in Curry County of truancy statute violations during 2006-2007 school year

Truancy statute violations filed in Curry County in 2004 and 2005