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New truancy effort could bring criminal charges to parents

Michelle Theriault Boots

The girl started missing school in the first grade. That year it was 15 days.

By her third-grade year in the Anchorage School District, the number had risen to 35 days, according to municipal prosecutor Cynthia Franklin.

By fifth grade, she was absent for 50. And by ninth grade she'd dropped out completely.

Starting this fall, the parents of Anchorage children who are chronically absent from school may be criminally prosecuted, Franklin said.

For the first time, the School District is teaming up with the municipal prosecutor to enforce a long-toothless truancy law, targeting the parents of the youngest absentee students in hopes the children won't become dropouts later.

Charging parents with a crime is a last resort, said Franklin, whose office will handle the cases.

"Rather than just throw a bunch of people in jail, what we want to do is provide a program where the emphasis is on compliance," she said.

The district has identified 184 families whose children missed more than 40 days in the last school year, said Superintendent Jim Browder, just starting his first year on the job.

When the first quarter of the school year ends on Oct. 19, school resource officers will look for kids who have missed more than nine days of school, or 20 percent of the year so far. Families of first and second graders will be the first group targeted.

If a pattern of absences continues, school officers will forward that information to the prosecutor's office. Parents could be ticketed or, if they still don't get their kids to school, charged with a class A misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of a year in jail and a $10,000 fine, Franklin said.

People with legitimate excuses, like an illness, won't end up in court. Prosecutors will have to prove that parents knowingly or intentionally contributed to the truancy, she said.

"This is people who everything has been offered to, including a cab will come to your house and pick up your child," she said.

Lawyers from the firm Gorton & Logue, who act as public defenders for people charged with municipal misdemeanors, were not available for comment on Friday.

BEING THERE

Getting kids to show up is the single most important thing the district can do to raise academic achievement, Browder said.

"The group that attends the least performs the lowest academically," he said.

Right now, not enough kids in Anchorage make it to class, he said.

Last year, according to the district, 78 percent of kindergartners made it to school 90 percent of the time. That means they missed no more than 17 days of the school year.

Statistics show that the number of children attending school 90 percent of the time peaks in the fifth grade, when 82 percent show up.

By the senior year of high school, the figure falls to just 55 percent of students.

"It's not like all of a sudden they get in high school and have bad attendance," said Cyndi Addington, an Anchorage policewoman assigned to Dimond High School and its feeder schools as a "school resource officer" for the past five years. "The reality is usually you can look back through their history and find they were missing huge amounts of school in elementary, middle and high school."

Prosecuting parents for their children's truancy is an idea that's been around for more than a decade. School districts and law enforcement authorities have been doing it since the mid-1990s in places like California and Florida.

In Alaska, the Nome district attorney's office, working with the Bering Strait School District, has been aggressively prosecuting parents of absentee schoolchildren for the past year. A father from the village of Wales was the first to serve jail time for the offense last October.

"I have a court calendar full of truancy cases on Monday," said prosecutor John Earthman. He said his office has cited or filed charges against dozens of families in the past year, on top of a burgeoning criminal caseload.

Why devote the resources?

"Life is very tough out here in this region," he said. "These kids simply cannot afford not to be educated."

For years Addington has kept tabs on truant kids, checking attendance records, talking with secretaries and conducting "knock and talk" visits with families to find out where kids are if not in school.

Behind the front doors of some of the wealthiest and poorest homes in Anchorage, she said, she's heard every excuse in the book.

She's had parents beg her to face down their physically large and defiant high schoolers. At times she has driven them to school herself in a patrol car. She's heard of older siblings staying home to care for younger siblings because the family can't afford day care. She sees many parents who work two or three jobs and aren't home enough to know when their older children aren't getting to school.

But a small, stubborn group simply can't or won't get their kids to school.

Until now, efforts by Addington and the 15 other school resource officers have relied on "finger-shaking," without any real chance of legal consequence, she said.

"They realize we're bluffing them," she said. "We're not going to be bluffing anymore."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News