It was a meeting in stark contrast to the previous board discussion on the issue of truancy. The meeting was such a stark contrast to the point where people were openly shaking their heads wondering why the original meeting in September had to go as poorly as it did.
To her credit, Pam Mari, Davis Joint Unified School District Director of Student Services admitted that the previous conversation did not go as well as was hoped. However, she suggested that communications have drastically improved.
As so often seems to be the case, there was a miscommunication about expectations. She seemed to believe that the board already knew what was going on with regards to truancy, when in fact they clearly did not. It should be noted of course, that this was her first presentation in her present position. Nevertheless, the entire incident underscores the need for communication to occur at a high level.
Unlike the September meeting, Pam Mari was flanked by Lt. Darren Pytel of the Davis Police Department who was able to clarify the role of the police as it relates to issues of truancy. Also present were Trease Peterson, the Youth Intervention Specialist, and representatives from the Yolo County Probations department and the Yolo County DA’s office (Patty Fong).
Lt. Darren Pytel made it clear to the public that the use of the term “sweep” meant something different to the police than to the public. To the public the perception was that they would go around town and attempt to round up youths who might not be in school. “We have no intent to do that.” Instead, they have found that a lot of high school students, when being truant, end up hanging around in the park next to school. If this is the situation they encounter then they approach the students with a consensual stop and ask them where they should be. According to Lt. Pytel, most students are fairly honest about what they should be doing.
Chronic truancy is also linked to criminal behavior and substance abuse.
Currently they are allowed by the education code to return the students to school. This does not constitute an arrest, and nothing is placed on the record or legal action taken, however, they do intend to notify the public.
Pam Mari laid out what amounts to seven levels of intervention based on the severity and persistence of the problem. (See the slides from the powerpoint presentation).
These range from preliminary steps to make contact with parents and students at the low levels of the policy to home visits in the middle levels, to full legal action at the high levels.
Police involvement begins at level three where a visiting team of the Davis Police Department Youth Specialist or an officer and a school administrator attempt to visit the home of a consistent truant. This is a consensual visit whereby the policy have no authority to enter the home. They can enter only by consent. They are limited to attendance issues and prefer to have school personnel present. There is a letter that would be deliver to the student or parent and they then follow up with a certified letter to the home.
At the level five, the student is classified as an “habitual truant” and is generally referred by the Yolo County District Attorney’s office to a Truancy Mediation program. Finally level six is where formal legal action occurs where by a notice-to-appear in court is present and the students and parents can face legal action.
It should be noted of course that level six only occurs after the previous five steps, it does not seem likely that this would ever be implemented unless the parents are being almost intentionally neglectful. Assuming that they follow through with the first five steps as diligently (as it appears on paper) they should be able to avoid full legal action.
On the other hand, Pam Mari remarked that the first letter finally went out last week, and this letter went to 45-55 Davis High School Students, which seems to me, a very large number of students who would have enough of a truancy problem that they required a first letter.
Board member Tim Taylor – who had expressed some concern at the previous meeting – expressed that he was both happy and impressed with the thought and explanation that went with this.
Taylor remained concerned about one aspect, and that is about how this process works and what criteria was applied for students to be brought back to school. Lt. Pytel explained that mostly the police made consensual contacts with people, cruising around and stopping kids who appeared of school age to ask them where they are supposed to be. Chief Black clarified with me that this largely occurred around the school itself but occasionally went into the broader community. However, it was not a large scale community-wide effort and was also not generally focused during times when students would have legitimate reasons to be about–such as during lunch or at the end of the day when some students had no classes or other arrangements.
The question of suspension came up. It seemed contradictory to Tim Taylor, Jim Provenza, and Gina Daleiden that suspension was a viable punishment for a student who was being truant. There was concern expressed, since suspension was the only punishment laid out in the policy code. Pam Mari suggested that it was largely counterintuitive, but said that every so often it makes sense. She suggested that two students had been subjected to this over the course of her tenure, in over 1000 cases. Tim Taylor pressed this point, suggesting that there may be reasons for suspension in addition to truancy, but does not understand why the punishment for not going to school would to keep the student from going to school.
Board member Keltie Jones suggested a scenario where a good student might blow off a single class that bored them; however, this does not seem to be a very likely scenario for habitual truants.
Jim Provenza eventually read from the education code which suggested looking for alternatives to suspension and detention. There also seemed to be a consensus to deemphasize suspension but not take it completely off the table.
In general, there was concern about how to handle the academic component of this. Two problems that are foreseen is that students may be reluctant to go back to school after missing considerable class due to being so far behind. Trease Peterson approached me after the agenda item to explain that they have given this dilemma considerable thought and have attempted to incorporate it into the broader program, so that students are not simply left with a sense of hopelessness.
Additionally, there was concern about the district policy whereby suspensions automatically mean coursework would become a zero. For students to suffer an academic punishment for behavioral problems, again seems counterintuitive. Many of the students who would be truant or suspended for other purposes, are likely to have enough academic problems to begin with.
Superintendent Richard Whitmore, who was in his final meeting as interim Superintendent, said that his single biggest regret was that they did not address that particular issue.
The issues that were not raised were SARB (School Attendance Review Board) which was multi-jurisdictional, and the issue of portable PDA devices and their use on campus.
However, for the most part, the key issues got raised, the school board had considerable buy-in to the process, and again one has to wonder why these things have to be so difficult. Had the initial presentation occurred like this, much anguish and confusion would have never materialized. Hopefully this is a lesson learned.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting