At one point during the school board meeting last Thursday, Davis Joint Unified School District Director of Student Services, Pam Mari made a somewhat awkward statement:
“And interestingly enough, there could have been an incident that happened today that had nothing to do with anything about this topic, but the last perception is crucial.”
This statement turned out to be true to some extent. The police action on the high school campus did indeed have nothing to do with the truancy “sweeps.” The action was actually related to a separate police led crackdown upon violations of the provisional license portion of the vehicle code section 12814.6 subdivision (B) which specifies:
“during the first 12 months after issuance of a provisional license the licensee may not do any of the following unless accompanied and supervised by a licensed driver who is the licensee’s parent or guardian, a licensed driver who is 25 years of age or older, or a licensed or certified driving instructor:
(B) Transport passengers who are under 20 years of age.”
It is the view of the police that most minors do not believe that this section of the vehicle code is enforced and therefore they determined that they would crack down on this behavior by the students. In a future installment, we will hear from some of the students at the high school about their perceptions about what happened and is happening on the campus. But a number of public officials have expressed privately some concerns about this crackdown by police.
There is a specific provision in this law that students cannot merely be pulled over for suspicion of violating this law. They can only be pulled over if there is probable cause of some other violation.
Hence subdivision (c) reads:
(c) A law enforcement officer may not stop a vehicle for the sole purpose of determining whether the driver is in violation of the restrictions imposed under subdivision (b).
In other words, we have cleared up some of the confusion as to what occurred on campus on Thursday of last week, where there was mass confusion and a number of complaints about the police presence, activities and presence on campus. That said the very idea of a crackdown and enforcement of this law appears to go against the spirit of the law that the legislature passed which specifically sought to avoid the type of profiling and stops that appear to have occurred on the campus. The actions performed by officers may well have fallen within the letter of the law in terms of using secondary violations as a means by which to pull over the students, but the intention of the law and the spirit of this law have clearly been pushed to the brink at the very least.
Moving on to the truancy policy itself, there still appears to be two major problems with the handling of the policy by the school district administration.
One is largely a communication problem, where the policy was never communicated from the administrative level in the school district to the policy level (i.e. the school board) and probably not adequately communicated to parents or the community. As a result of that, large portions of this policy are now on hold. This was to be an interjurisdictional policy with coordination between the District Attorney’s Office, Police Department and School District. However, somehow and for some reasons none of the policymaking bodies–city council, school board, or board of supervisors–were informed of this coordinated activity.
The second problem developed from the use of the word “sweep.” As Lt. Darren Pytel of the Davis Police Department explained to me, the police’s use of the word “sweep” is a much broader term than what non-law enforcement think of the meaning of the word “sweep.”
At one point during the meeting, Pam Mari recognized the word “sweep” was part of the angst that had been created with the board about this policy.
“Perhaps we are really hurting on this word sweep… And if the word sweep were eliminated and it was home visit, I wonder if we would be as hurting. I apologize if that word is what is causing the trouble, that’s a word that the police department uses to mean on a given day we are going to use a lot of our energy and do this.”
It is interesting because according to Lt. Darren Pytel, the department is now also using the term “home visit” rather than “sweep” to describe the operation.
While the use of word “sweep” may have been unfortunate. It was probably not the chief cause for concern among the school board members. It is also unfortunate the way the meeting itself was conducted. First, the board was provided with exactly one paragraph of written documentation for a fairly complex policy that required a good deal of coordination and explanation.
Second, if all of these agencies (police, school district, district attorney) were involved, then why not have representatives from all of these agencies present at the school board meeting. At the very least, if Lt. Darren Pytel and Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven were present at this meeting, they could have responded to some of the concerns. Instead, we are having to ask questions of them outside of the public setting. Normally an interjurisdictional presentation would have each of the participants as part of a broader presentation. None of this happened. Instead there was a paragraph delivered to the school board.
It is only now that there is any kind of clarity about this policy and that in itself remains a source of discomfort not only for community members, but public officials whose duty it is to run various bodies.
There are actually two parts of this operation according to Davis Police Lt. Darren Pytel. The first part is that when the district recognized they had a truancy problem (Lt. Pytel said that the truancy problem began before the computer glitch and extended past it) and the police quickly discovered that a large portion of the students who were skipping class had actually gone to the park right next door to the school, and so with minimal effort of increasing patrols by the police, they could transport those students back to class. Therefore, this was a relatively simple and straightforward way to get a good percentage of students back to class.
The second part of the effort, which was what they were calling the “sweep,” actually were these home visits, where the worst of the truancy offenders would receive home visits by the police and a school administrator. They would make contact with the parents and hopefully get the students back in class. According to Lt. Pytel, this was very successful last year.
Their goal for this year was the top 20 offenders at the high school, the five worst offenders at the Junior High, and all of the elementary school students who were truant.
That brings us to the next question: why do the police have to do this rather than merely the administration? There is a concern that some of the truants are not merely students who are not wanting to go to school but some may also be involved in criminal activity. Therefore a home visit by an administrator alone may introduce an element of danger and risk that they should not have to undertake. That is the job of the police. (The real question that we will discuss a bit later is whether we are to the point where the police need to become involved).
Therefore, again according to what the police are saying, there is no general sweep in this plan. A general sweep would be a broader crackdown within the community whereby the police would look for minors who were supposed to be in school and bring them back to school. Again, the claim by Lt. Pytel is that this was not in the offering.
That said, there is a degree of skepticism by some officials about this claim. Some of whom believe that it is possible that the original plan did call for a more general crackdown on truancy which did involve the police going into the larger community and attempt to find students who were not in class and bring them back to class. And that this represents a bit of backtracking on the part of the police after getting some negative feedback from the community. (I am not really in the position to judge this now, all I can tell is you is what I have been told.)
Lt. Pytel also claimed to not have knowledge about the proposed use of PDAs to identify the students who were supposed to be in class and those who were not suppose to be in class. This was mentioned by Pam Mari but it was not clear who would be the jurisdiction that used the PDAs and how they would be used.
Lt. Pytel did say that in general it was fairly easy to determine which kids were out legitimately and which were not. That most of the students were actually very honest when they were caught. A few of the students did however lie about their identity, but that was quickly discovered as well with a radio to Marc Hicks, the School Resource Officer.
As I said, the questions and concerns now raised by the school board have put this on hold for now. We need to have future discussions in the school district and community at large about the problem of truancy. It may be a serious problem. But the way that this policy came together is also equally concerning. The lack of communication to the policy makers is a serious problem that needs further inquiry. The school board should never have been put in the position that they were on Thursday.
Originally the police were going to conduct their truancy sweep, I mean home visits, on September 19, 2007. As we discussed previously with our look at the education code, legally, the code provides that certain steps be taken before such actions could occur. So there would not be sufficient time to send out the right number of letters or follow the steps laid out. That would mean, that legally the police could not enforce the truancy laws, all they could do would be to go to the home of the students and attempt to get them back into school that way.
I think this is an important that bears consideration. The justification for this was that by the time they could get the letters out, the students would be hopelessly behind in their studies. Therefore, if they could get to the students in September who were already having serious problems with truancy, they could get back into school and be able to catch up.
In theory that sounds good, in practice, there are two important considerations. First, that the law is very specific about the protocol that needs to be followed, in such a way that law enforcement involvement necessarily comes at the last possible step. And second, there is a reason why many of these students are missing class. So even if you get them back into class early on, you still have to deal with those contributing problems. In other words, merely getting them back into class is not a solution but rather a step in the process. There is an advantage to getting to them sooner, but not at the expense of process.
During the course of the meeting on Thursday, Pam Mari was dismissive of the creation of a School Attendance Review Board (SARB) as a means deal with this issue. However, Lt. Pytel offered it as perhaps the ultimate direction that they want to go. The concern though was that it would take time to set it up and it is by its nature a bureaucracy that relies heavily on the coordination between a large number of jurisdictions.
Here is a good definition of SARB:
“In 1974, the Legislature enacted a statute to enhance the enforcement of compulsory education laws and to divert students with school attendance or behavior problems from the juvenile justice system until all available resources have been exhausted. This statute created School Attendance Review Board (SARBs), composed of representatives from various youth-serving agencies, to help truant or recalcitrant students and their parents or guardians solve school attendance and behavior problems through the use of available school and community resources. Although the goal of SARB is to keep students in school and provide them with a meaningful educational experience, SARB does have the power, when necessary, to refer students and their parents or guardians to court.”
It seems that the reason that they did not attempt to create a SARB was that it would take a good amount of time, large amounts of efforts and cooperation to create. But this would be a body that would have the authority to do what was needed to get kids back into school but it would not begin at the law enforcement level.
And this remains my concern with this process. I believe that the goal of getting students who are not attending school into class is a very admirable one. But I do not like the way this was approached. Without board direction, an administrator with the school district reached out to law enforcement bodies for help. Law enforcement has a very specific role to play in our society and that is to enforce the laws and punish people who break those laws and who represent a danger to society.
However to put it simply, they are a blunt object. Their presence is marked by fear, intimidation, and authority. In some cases, that presence can be helpful in being the two-by-four that wakes up parents and students and gets their attention. But as Lt. Pytel acknowledged, kids are not a one-size-fits-all subgroup. Rather different kids will respond to different stimuli. For some kids, this type of action may help them. For other, it may push them into other directions.
I think the statement made by School Board member Tim Taylor remains crucial for those of us who are still concerned about this policy.
“One of the things we are struggling with is that regardless of whether the law allows certain things to be done, if they haven’t been done, we have two choices, we can hit the ground at 100 miles per hour or we can have a discussion with ourselves and the community and the public and discuss what are we going to do and I think what you’re hearing and certainly what I’m feeling certainly is that the 100 mile an hour approach while perhaps legal may not be the best fit. Because people are gong to feel like they are getting run over. That will cause community pullback… instead of buy-in, which I think we need, that will have the opposite effect.”
The goals involved in this program are as I said, admirable. But really the middle people should not be the ones creating the policies or at least new procedures by which to deal with existing policies–depending on what terminology you want to use here. What I would like to see now is a prolonged discussion in the community, where you have parents, community members, students, the police, the district attorney, the traffic commissioner, the juvenile justice community, the city council, and the school board all sit down communicate about the issue of truancy.
First I would like talk about what the problems are. I still do not feel I have a good appreciation for what the problems are, how extensive they are, and what other problems exist.
Second, I would like a full detailing of present efforts to curtail truancy. What has been tried. What has worked. What has not worked.
Third, determine a course of action. It is my opinion, that law enforcement should be the absolute last resort for dealing with this problem. And quite frankly, law enforcement in this case was not the last resort. Pam Mari argued strongly during the meeting that she exhausted everything and therefore was forced to bring in law enforcement, but that is not true in the least. The next step should have been to take it to the school board. Another step would have been to take it to the public in terms of community forums. Another step would have been to create a task force. Another step would have been to create a SARB. All of these are things that were not done prior to an effort to outreach law enforcement.
It may be that at the end of the day, we do need to be law enforcement. But at the point when we will have done that, we will have engaged the community on this issue and will have brought them along in the process toward that conclusion. As it stands now there is confusion, there is anger, there is fear, and there is trepidation. That does not lead to community buy in, it leads to community pull back.
And let me be very clear, my complaint here is not with law enforcement. It may not even be with this policy. It is with the process by which this policy was created. There are key lessons to be learned here, and the biggest one is that the best of efforts and intentions can be undone by failure to communicate and failure to follow proper process.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting