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The Story Behind Truancy

February 10, 2011
February 10, 2011

California has a new law to crack down on chronic truancy but scholars and social workers hope when reporters file stories on students – and parents – who break that law, they also look at the reasons behind the unexcused absences, especially in urban neighborhoods.

In her inaugural address, attorney general Kamala Harris noted that last year (2010) 600,000 elementary school students were truant in California.

“That roughly matches the number of people (inmates, probationers, parolees) in the state prison system,” she said.

Harris supported a law in San Francisco that can fine or jail parents if their children were chronically truant. A similar law in California went into effect January 1, 2011.

Los Angeles Southwest College clinical psychologist Dr. Gabriel Crenshaw says reporters who write about violations of the law should not assume the children don’t want to be in school.

“Some of these kids come from single-parent households,” he said. They have to make their own way to school. Sometimes that means walking to the bus stop through gang-infested territory.”

As a psychologist he believes some of these children suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“They see so much and then we ask them to come to school and concentrate… and that happens all the way from elementary to college age,” he said.

The media should realize that many young people attend school despite such challenges.

Eric Richmond is a junior at Arise High School, a charter school in Oakland, and he agrees truancy is a problem among his friends.

“A lot of my friends skip because they don’t want to be in school. They think it’s boring,” he said. “I don’t really skip school. I find it kind of stupid because it’s going to hurt me. I want to go to college and skipping school is not going to help me get to college.”

He thinks media coverage of the truancy issue — and young people in general –plays a role in kids not caring about their education.

“The media has a big part in why we act the way we do because it’s like a “hype man” you could call it,” he said. “They’re saying that we’re bad, we’re ignorant, we’re violent. That doesn’t make us want to change it and they’re not offering anything to say how to change it either.”

But he also acknowledges some of the schools his friends attend are hurting for resources. The buildings are old, the books are old and the technology is old.

Dr. Jeffrey Duncan-AndradeDr. Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade is the Director of Educational Equity at San Francisco State University and teaches at Oakland’s Fremont High School. He believes Richmond is right on the mark.

“The kids who need the most in this country get the least when it comes to school. The kids who need the least get the most. And everyone in this country knows it. It’s not a mystery.”

Duncan-Andrade said media reports that stereotype young people of color — whether it’s truancy or graduation rates — won’t change until journalists get out of their comfort zones and start talking to more people.

“There is a new generation of scholars in this country, many of whom come from more humble beginnings and are people of color. The more the media can insert those kinds of voices into the conversation, the more likely (stereotypes) will unravel.”

Attorney General Harris said the stakes are high.

“We know chronic truancy leads to dropping out, which dramatically increases the odds that a young person will become a perpetrator or victim of crime,” she said.

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