School Attendance Review Board (SARB) hearings are nothing new, but they were the subject of pointed criticism at a January meeting of the Pleasant Valley Elementary School District, when parents claimed their children had been labeled habitual truants after going on family vacations.
As a result, they were referred to the SARB — a practice that increased by more than 50 percent countywide during the prior school year. Some Pleasant Valley parents said they were also referred to Child Protective Services (CPS).
Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Holly Hermansen says SARB does not make CPS referrals — but it does include a representative from the county’s Social Services office.
According to Nevada County’s director of Social Services Nicole Pollack, parents cannot lose their children over truancy alone.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “Truancy in and of itself does not rise to that level.”
It can, however, lead to other types of intervention like parenting classes or food support. In some cases, CPS may refer families to other agencies.
“It would depend on our assessment of the family’s needs,” Pollack said. “There may be a domestic violence issue or a substance abuse issue where the parent is not able to get the child to school.”
Pollack added that mental health problems in the home, like depression, can also lead to truancy. So can problems with transportation.
“A lot of the time, that family just needs some different support structures,” Pollack said.
The number of K-8 students referred to Nevada County’s SARB spiked by 55 percent during the 2012-13 school year. County officials say they’ve been trending toward early intervention with younger students because it’s more difficult to change the attendance behaviors of older students.
“I have encouraged school principals to refer students to SARB earlier so we can take preventative measures,” Hermansen wrote in an email to The Union.
One factor in that increase may involve provisions of California’s educational code that defines “truant” to include any student with three unexcused absences in one school year; three tardies of 30 minutes or more; or any combination thereof — such as one absence and two tardies.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris called truancy a “crisis” in a 2013 report called “In School + On Track.”
“Because of truancy, California public schools lose $1.4 billion a year in funding,” Harris said. “When young children are truant, they’re more likely to drop out before high school and to become victims or perpetrators of crime. In addition, truancy drives huge costs to California taxpayers, to the tune of ($46.4 billion) per year.”
The stakes were raised in 2011 when the legislature amended California’s truancy laws to include misdemeanor and felony charges for parents who are unable to improve their child’s attendance. In extreme cases, parents of truant children might be referred to the district attorney for prosecution.
“Truancy is a huge issue and I’m a big proponent of keeping kids in school,” said Nevada County District Attorney Cliff Newell.
Newell said his office has received only 12 such referrals since 2010. Most of those cases were resolved through parental compliance and dismissed.
“It’s not about giving the parent a criminal record,” Newell said. “We may charge a parent with the ultimate goal of dismissing the case when they comply with school attendance laws.”
Newell said the 55 percent spike in SARB referrals might be explained by new best-practices for keeping kids in school.
“They started SARBing kids earlier and earlier, because by the time they get to junior high or high school they’re already set in their ways and we have very little ability to modify that behavior,” he said.
Newell, Pollack and Hermansen all agree that the intention behind this sort of intervention is to identify and provide the appropriate support services — not to punish Nevada County families.
Pleasant Valley Elementary School District Superintendent Debra Sandoval has said that the increased enforcement of truancy regulations came after letters from the Attorney General’s office and the State Superintendent of Schools, as well as from the county.
“We have to start following the law on student attendance,” Sandoval said during the January meeting of the PVESD’s board of trustees. “So we have been gruelingly consistent with students about this, and have had some parents who were upset and angry with us.”
Not all the parents in Sandoval’s district believe that truancy laws are being enforced evenly in every district.
Members of Nevada County Parents for Student Success, a group that formed to collectively bargain with Sandoval’s administration, have stated that overly rigorous enforcement has led some families to leave the district.
The state’s role in this controversy might suggest that all of Nevada County’s school districts are subject to the same pressure — but not all local schools and districts reported an increased number of SARB’s referrals between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years.
Union Hill Elementary made seven referrals in 2011-12, but none in the 2012-13 school year. Nevada County’s various K-8 charter schools issued no SARB referrals in 2012-13.
“I think the reason I see differences across different schools maybe depends on the philosophy of that principal,” Hermansen said when asked about the inconsistencies.
To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
“Because of truancy, California public schools lose $1.4 billion a year in funding.”
California Attorney General Kamala Harris