Truancy ordinance needs work

The county clearly needs to do more homework before adopting a truancy ordinance that would give deputies the ability to “temporarily detain” and ticket students who skip school.

The Board of Supervisors was wise to postpone a vote in order to give the public more opportunities to learn about and comment on the proposal.

Supervisors had been scheduled to vote on the proposal Tuesday, but they decided on the postponement after numerous parents who home-school their children complained that they were never asked for input. Parents also objected that the ordinance would violate their children’s constitutional rights and they wondered why the county needs an ordinance when the state already has regulations on the books.

We share those concerns.

Students do have a number of valid reasons to be out and about during the day. They may be homeschooled; enrolled in independent study or work experience programs; on the way to or from a doctor’s appointment; or they may attend an alternative school that has half-day sessions.

The ordinance includes exemptions for such cases, but here’s the rub: How is a law officer supposed to know whether or not students have a valid reason for being out of school unless they stop and talk to them?

That’s where the concerns of the home-school parents come in to play. They don’t want their children to be under suspicion when they’ve done nothing wrong.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson assured parents that their children would not be stopped simply because of their age — that there would have to be some other “reasonable suspicion” to stop youths.

Also, school resource officers — not patrol deputies — would be enforcing the ordinance and they would be looking for students who have problems with habitual truancy.

“When they (school resource officers) go by the park and there are four 14-year-olds hanging out it gives them the ability to stop by,” Parkinson said by way of example.

While we agree that law enforcement officers need tools to do their job, we fear this ordinance could wind up creating more problems than it solves.

For one, the county leaves itself open up to accusations of profiling if officers choose to question only some students who are out during school hours.

Also, if the ordinance is enforced to any degree, it won’t take long for habitually truant students to figure out that they’ll have to stay out of sight to avoid being caught. In that case, how effective will it be?

The fact is, California already has truancy regulations on the books. Parents can face fines and even jail time if their children repeatedly skip school. The students themselves can lose their driver’s licenses.

Apart from that, individual schools have their own disciplinary policies for dealing with students who skip school, and students who are found to be habitually truant must appear before a review board.

Do we really need another ordinance that would fine students — up to $100 for a first offense — in addition to these other interventions? Perhaps we do — if the ordinance truly will reduce truancy and boost graduation rates and if it can be fairly enforced. We don’t believe that proponents have made that case yet, however.

In addition to answering questions already raised, we would urge backers of the ordinance to present research on how truancy laws have worked out in other jurisdictions. We would also like to get a better sense of whether the county’s seven cities would be willing to adopt similar ordinances. To be most effective, this should be acountywide initiative.

We also strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to schedule ahearing outside of school hours so that students can participate — without being regarded as truants.