SLO County supervisors delay vote on truancy law

Pressed by parents who accused them of criminalizing their school-age children, San Luis Obispo County supervisors on Tuesday postponed a decision on an anti-truancy ordinance until they have time to conduct a thorough publicity campaign.

The Board of Supervisors and other officials have been working on the law in an effort to get youngsters who skip school back into the classroom.

Truancy, officials argue, is a predictor of who will drop out of school.

The ordinance would have increased the powers of school resource officers and other law enforcement personnel to “temporarily detain” students who are not in school during school hours.

The officer would be empowered “to return that minor to school or his or her parents or legal guardian.”

School resource officers, who are the law enforcement officers assigned to monitor specific campuses, do not have that authority, San Luis Obispo County Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio wrote in a staff report to supervisors.

If and when they acquire it, they would be able to “act in the best interest of the minor and preserve public safety,” he wrote.But that provision drew a slew of questions and objections, most of them from parents of children who are either home-schooled or go to private schools. Some of the youngsters also testified, which drew unanimous praise from county officials.

Their chief objection centered on whether the ordinance, which gives law enforcement the right to question youngsters, is constitutional.

It “presumes our children are guilty (of being truant) until proven innocent,” parent Nancy Fortenberry said.

She and others said there are numerous reasons that youngsters might be on the street during school hours. “How will law enforcement discriminate” among them, one parent asked.

Several speakers cited the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Where, parents asked, was the probable cause in this ordinance?

At some point an officer seeing a child out of school during school hours is going to make a decision about whom to question and not question. They asked how the officer would make that call.

Deputy County Counsel Rita Neal said her office had reviewed the ordinance for constitutionality and as long as it was “narrowly tailored” and showed a reason to stop someone, it passed muster.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said nobody would be stopped without “reasonable suspicion based on articulatable facts. This is not just, ‘I see a child walking down the street’ ” and will therefore stop him.

In addition, there are exceptions under the ordinance to when an officer would be able to act, such as when a minor has permission from a school to be off campus or was heading for a doctor’s appointment.

Whether those explanations satisfied everyone or left things too vague was not clear. Supervisor Bruce Gibson said he would like to see more clarity about due process and presumption of guilt.

There were other questions as well, including how the ordinance would work inter-jurisdictionally. It is designed to cover those kids thought to be truant in areas outside city limits. What about the school districts whose youngsters are within city limits, or places where a school district is in both city and county?

With all these questions, Supervisor Frank Mecham said, “There needs to be further outreach. I am surprised at the lack of awareness (of the ordinance).”

He and other supervisors agreed that they and school boards needed to do a more aggressive job of educating the public about the proposal. They set no date for a future discussion.