Skipping school could mean a fine

MEDFORD — Youths could be fined or face community service for chronically skipping school under a new ordinance passed Wednesday by Jackson County commissioners.

Educators say the ordinance will give them more leverage in cracking down on students who refuse to go to school.

"This is really a tool of last resort," said Angela Curtis, director of the Jackson County Commission on Children and Families.

Unanimously approved on the first reading by county commissioners, the ordinance could take effect at the beginning of 2010.

Under current law, officials can fine only the parents if their children fail to show up at school.

The new ordinance allows attendance officials to seek citations in juvenile court against truant children ages 12-18. The citation could lead to a contempt order if the youth continues to skip school.

Attendance at many schools in Southern Oregon hovers at 90 percent or less, according to the Oregon Department of Education; 92 percent is required by the No Child Left Behind act.

Under the ordinance, chronically truant students may be required to perform community service, including serving at a neighborhood school or a nonprofit. Stronger penalties include a $500 fine or detention, which are considered measures of last resort, said Curtis.

"In some instances it takes a little bit more encouragement for the youth to return to school," she said. "This provides a mechanism to hold that youth directly accountable if the parents are doing all they can."

Schools, the county Commission on Children and Families and the District Attorney's Office will be part of a coordinated effort behind the truancy ordinance, which is expected to reduce juvenile crime and the dropout rate.

The program is based on a similar effort in Klamath County that has cut down on truancy there, Curtis said.

Before any actions are taken against students or parents, attendance officials assess the student, looking at economic, mental health and family issues.

Sometimes a student just needs a new pair of shoes as encouragement to get to school, Curtis said.

If a truant needs more encouragement, the ordinance will allow educators to send him to select nonprofits and schools for community service. Curtis said these organizations would also offer some kind of education to help the student as well.

Educators are estimating the program will lead to about 10 percent of truant students receiving citations and 3 percent getting contempt orders, Curtis said.

The ordinance shouldn't cost schools more money, but will be incorporated into the work already done by truancy officers and attendance officials.

J. Adam Peterson, deputy district attorney, said the new law shouldn't overburden the justice system.

"As a matter of fact, it should have the opposite effect," he said. "It should lessen the burden on the District Attorney's Office."

Last year, 55 parents were cited for failing to get their children to school, he said.

Some of the parents made every effort to get their children to school by driving them there, dropping them off and watching them go through the door.

"Then the parents have to go to work, and then the kids skip out," Peterson said.

Continuing to go after the parents is futile at this point, so the ordinance will provide a new avenue that might compel many students to go back to school, he said.

It will be up to attendance officials to decide the best course of action, which might include contacting Peterson's office to take the legal steps.

Peterson and Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia drafted the ordinance, he said.

Betsy Mathas, who helps track down truant students for five local school districts and works for the Southern Oregon Education Service District, said she expects the ordinance to help bring many students back to school.

She said students she sees are often defiant because they don't face repercussions if they skip school, often saying it's their parents' problem.

"They will be accountable for their actions," she said. "It will help some of them straighten up."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail

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