Grand Jury Looks at Higher Truancy Rates

More kids are late to school and skipping altogether after the program’s funding was cut in 2008.

When Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley was campaigning for her office’s top spot in 2010, she pledged to bring back the truancy program, a highly successful initiative that had been in place for 11 years before its funding was cut in October 2008. But with her deputy DAs already carrying the largest caseload out of any department in the state, and with the Board of Supervisors cutting positions in her office, Dudley’s hands are tied.

In its latest report, the Grand Jury took aim at truancy, an issue that both impacts a student’s ability to graduate from high school as well as a school district’s ability to garner state funding. A truant is any child with three unexcused absences or three tardies longer than 30 minutes without a valid excuse in a school year.

According to statistics from the state Department of Education, the countywide truancy rate for 2009-2010 was higher than the statewide rate. In addition, the county’s truancy rate has been growing over the last five years — from 19.46 percent in 2005-2006 to 31.02 percent in 2009-2010. Those numbers jumped 7 percentage points when the truancy program was shuttered.

The Grand Jury, noting the success of the program, is recommending the Board of Supervisors fund a full-time position in the DA’s Office to bring back a truancy program. It also said the DA should at least be sending letters to parents of truant students. Dudley said she agreed with the report. “It’s critical for the county to be involved in the truancy program,” she said. Dudley said her office will be preparing letters to send to parents of truant students but can do little more because of mandated obligations the office has to prosecute misdemeanors and felonies. She noted she hopes to work with more school districts as her office does with the Lompoc School District, where they contract with the DA’s Office to prosecute truancy, but school districts are facing tight budgets of their own.

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