Contra Costa County is changing its strategy in the fight against school truancy among children by introducing court proceedings that attend to the responsibility of parents while also offering them services.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office announced Thursday it was partnering with the county's Superior Court and school districts for the court proceedings, which will begin this fall.
County officials said collaboration between the court and the schools will allow parents to access resources available through both systems to reduce elementary or middle school student absenteeism.
Deputy district attorney Laura Delehunt said these court proceedings will differ from what the county has done in the past by levying responsibility on parents instead of students.
Historically, the court proceedings would be directed at correcting the student's behavior, regardless of age. Students with too many absences would have to do community service or would have their driver's license revoked.
The court proceedings are also less focused on the threat of severe penalties, Delehunt said.
She said neighboring Alameda County has seen a lot of success with a truancy court that placed emphasis on why truancy is occurring, not how harsh punishments can be. This new initiative is modeled on that, she said.
A state law that took effect in January 2011 criminalizes chronic truancy, possibly leading to convictions of parents and penalties of up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
"We want to explore what's going on in the parents' lives, how we can provide them with services to curb absenteeism," Delehunt said. "We're much more interested in that than punishing the parents."
"But if we can't change behavior with the court, we are willing to take advantage of (the law), but hopefully that will be few and far between," she said.
Court proceedings won't penalize students or their parents for a few absences, but rather will focus on chronically absent students who have missed 10% or more of the school days in one year.
After reviewing information in cases of chronically absent students taken from a county School Attendance Review Board, the district attorney will consider charging parents with an infraction.
The infraction will place parents on a 12 months of probation. After that period, which is monitored, charges may be dismissed.
All the while, the court will be attempting to remove barriers that have led to the absenteeism, county officials said. It will also educate parents about the problems associated with truancy.
County officials pointed to data showing that children who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were less likely to read proficiently by the end of third grade.
In Contra Costa County, police have reported that 60% of juvenile crime occurs between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays, during school hours.
Delehunt said she is hopeful that dealing with kids who are getting into a bad pattern at a young age can reverse truancy trends.