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Truancy Officer Brian Gonzales

Brian Gonzales, truancy officer for the Kings County Office of Education.

HANFORD — If there’s one message that Truancy Officer Brian Gonzales has for parents, it’s that they do whatever it takes to make sure their kids are going to school all day, every day.

Gonzales works for the Kings County Office of Education and has conducted annual SARB trainings since he started at the county office almost 20 years ago.

The School Attendance Review Board (SARB) process is a part of California state law that has been in existence since 1974. It gives schools the authority, after all other interventions and resources have failed, to refer truancy cases to a district attorney’s office for prosecution.

Many parents may not know that they are responsible for their child’s attendance from the beginning of the school day to the end, and can be fined or even have to spend time in jail if they do not make their children go to school, which is mandatory for children 6-18 years old. This includes excessive tardiness or excessive excused absences.

During this process, the parents and SARB discuss what is going on at home and why the student is truant and the board makes a determination on whether the case should be sent to prosecutors.

Most of the time, Gonzales said parents don’t want to be the “bad guy” and upset or anger their child by making them get out of bed and go to school. Sometimes they are afraid of their own child, and other times family issues like domestic violence are at play, he said.

All of the school districts in Kings County participate in the SARB process, so it’s Gonzales’ job to keep them all up to date in regards to policies.

He said the SARB process has been highly effective in Kings County because the districts actively address truancy and are not hesitant to use the full extent of the law, if need be.

In fact, Gonzales suspects Kings County to be the strictest county in the state in regards to truancy and is the only county to have both a local SARB and a county SARB.

If all measures are taken at the local SARB level and there is still a truancy problem, then the case is taken to the county SARB and it is decided whether to prosecute the parent.

On average, Gonzales said 150 cases are prosecuted every year in Kings County, with some of them resulting with a parent spending time in jail.

This year, Gonzales said the SARB process in the county was changed to expedite the process once a case is referred for criminal prosecution. He said what used to take around eight months now takes around 90 days.

He said Kings County is one of the only counties in the entire state to get through the process that quickly.

“Our county is doing very well in the SARB process,” Gonzales said. “The SARB process is the only effective way to actually address habitual truancy.”

Since he started working for the county office of education, Gonzales has trained local school districts on SARB and has now branched out to train officials from other local areas like Tulare, Fresno and Kern counties.

What makes Kings County’s process so successful is the partnership and communication between agencies, Gonzales said.

He said Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes, and all the previous district attorneys, have fully supported the SARB process.

“We’re the envy of the state in regards to the way our SARB process runs,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales said the districts do all they can to intervene before it becomes a SARB issue and said he is constantly working with families to get them the resources they need to make sure the kids go to school.

Five years ago, Kings County Office of Education, Kings County Behavioral Health and Kings County District Attorney’s Office teamed up to implement the Truancy Intervention Prevention Program (TIPP) in lieu of fines or jail time for parents.

The program, the first of its kind in the state, is a one-day parenting class that touches on school attendance laws, parenting skills, tough love, recognizing drug or gang activity and other resources from the country. There are two classes held every month, one in Spanish and one in English.

Gonzales said he’s seen a dramatic drop in recidivism rate of truancy cases going back to SARB because of the TIPP class. Though parents are not happy to be there, he said by the end of the day they are receptive and grateful.

Gonzales said it’s important for parents to know the consequences of not making their child go to school, including increased chances of that child becoming involved in crime or gangs.

Hanford Police Officer Per Westlund, a school resource officer for Hanford Elementary School District and a TIPP presenter, said the key to keeping kids out of trouble is keeping them in the classroom.

He said the schools do everything they can to help before they absolutely have to send the case to the SARB.

Westlund said he personally gets involved in the attendance process at his campus, Woodrow Wilson Junior High, by talking with students when they’re late to school and holding them accountable for their tardiness.

Westlund said he also shows up to students’ houses sometimes to respectfully and courteously talk with parents about what they could do to get their kids to go to school.

He said many parents expect the police to be the ones to yank the kids out of bed and drag them to school, but that is not the case. Ultimately, he said the responsibility falls solely on the parents.

“Parents want to avoid conflict,” Westlund said. “But if a child doesn’t respect you, they’re not going to like you anyway.”

Discipline doesn’t necessarily mean physical force, but can be something as simple as taking away the child’s phone, gaming console or other electronic devices, Gonzales said.

Westlund said SARB has worked tremendously well and Gonzales said attendance at the schools improves dramatically after parents get that first SARB referral. According to Westlund, 85 percent of cases do not have further issues after the process.

“I think the system is effective,” Westlund said.

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