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HANFORD — A summit held in Kings County last month may spark statewide changes in how schools deal with student truancy.

The California Truancy Summit drew more than 200 people from across California to the area to discuss a problem some are describing as an “epidemic.”

Over 1.8 million students, almost 30 percent of the state’s student body, were truant in California in the 2010-11 year. About 40 percent of those were kids in elementary school.

In the days following the summit, Attorney General Kamala Harris issued a statement to county and district superintendents urging them to give the issue “the serious attention it deserves.”

“California law places a duty on us — parents, educators and law enforcement — to ensure that our young children attend school every day,” Harris said.

Students are considered “truant” in state law when they are absent without a valid excuse for three full days, or tardy for more than a 30-minute period on three separate occasions.

Parents of truant children can be prosecuted for failing to meet this obligation.

Kings County is on the cutting edge of truancy enforcement, with a district attorney willing to prosecute these cases and a School Attendance Review Board that handles almost every school district in the county.

Truant Officer Brian Gonzales said it’s almost unheard of to have so many school districts subscribing to SARB.

“We got a lot of attention from the summit,” Gonzales said. “The wake from that event made it all the way to Sacramento. Now we’re seeing the results. I honestly believe our summit ignited the interest we are seeing in this subject today. Prior to this, the state’s efforts to curb truancy were stagnant.”

The California Department of Education held its own public forum today to discuss policies dealing with what they are calling “chronic absence.” Educators, policymakers and law enforcement from across the state were invited to attend.

Next, a survey will be sent out to all the county superintendents to determine what SARBs are in place and how they are functioning.

The Attorney General’s Office also plans to issue a report about absence rates in California elementary schools before the end of the month.

“When a child is truant, it’s a symptom of something else going on in the home,” Gonzales said. “We need to take a proactive approach. SARB is a catalyst for a lot of schools to address issues these students have.”

District Attorney Greg Strickland, speaking at last month’s summit, said school dropouts are three times more likely to end up in prison.

He argued if the state could increase the graduation rate by 10 percent, it would lead to 500 less homicides and 20,000 fewer assault cases a year.

“My office understands the importance of addressing truancy at every level of compulsory education in California,” Strickland said. “I work very closely with the Kings County School Attendance Review Board and support its efforts in prosecuting truancy.”

The state’s first conviction for failing to obey truancy law happened right here in Kings County two years ago. Lemoore mom Victoria Jeff was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of failing to bring her three kids to school on 20 separate days.

“We are at the front lines,” Gonzales said. “We’ve sent many parents to jail for not dealing with their kids truancy. My hope is that all of our county schools will one day participate vigorously in this program.”

The only two Kings County school districts that currently remain separate from SARB are the Island School District and Hanford Union Elementary School District.

The county truancy rate currently sits at 28.8 percent, which is just slightly higher than the state average.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2425 or by email at jjohnson@HanfordSentinel.com.

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