Attorney General Kamala D. Harris Releases 2016 Truancy Report, Demonstrating Years of Progress, Persistent Challenges

Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Contact: (415) 703-5837, agpressoffice@doj.ca.gov
SAN FRANCISCO – Attorney General Kamala D. Harris today issued the fourth annual statewide report on elementary school truancy and chronic absenteeism in California, In School + On Track 2016. The report, part of the work of the Department’s Bureau of Children’s Justice, finds that an estimated 210,000 K-5 students in California missed 10% of the school year in 2015-2016, making up 7.3% of elementary students in the state. The report also confirms earlier research on the disproportionately high rates of absenteeism among African American, Native American, and Pacific Islander elementary school students, special education students, and foster and homeless youth.  The report does highlight that significant progress is being made, with school districts increasingly taking action to ensure children are in school, on time, every day. Improving school attendance has long been a centerpiece of Attorney General Harris’ public service. As District Attorney of San Francisco, Attorney General Harris first drew the connection between chronic absenteeism, third grade reading levels, dropping out of school, and future involvement in the criminal justice system (as a perpetrator or victim of crime). In the past decade, she has brought this issue to the forefront of state and national conversations about how to keep our communities safe and develop a thriving workforce. Recently, the federal Department of Education launched Every Student, Every Day: A National Initiative to Address and Eliminate Chronic Absenteeism, which is modeled on Attorney General Harris’ longstanding work on this effort. “To be smart on crime and invest wisely in California’s economic future, we must eliminate elementary school truancy,” said Attorney General Harris. “Chronically absent children are far more likely to drop out of school and enter into the criminal justice system. This is a solvable problem: with better data, monitoring, and communication with parents, we can continue to make significant strides toward ensuring students are in school and on track to meet their full potential.” Drawing from four years of longitudinal data—a sample of almost half a million kindergarten to 5th grade students from nearly 200 school districtsIn School + on Track 2016 includes the most comprehensive analysis to-date on the high rates of absenteeism among California’s elementary school students. The report finds that California continues to face an attendance crisis, with an estimated 210,000 K-5 students missing 10% of the 2015-16 school year, and that this crisis disproportionately affects African American, low-income, special education, and highly mobile students. School suspensions also severely exacerbate the attendance crisis and have an inordinate impact on boys, low-income students, and students with special needs. In fact, 55% of students in this study who had more than one suspension were also chronically absent. Low-income students accounted for 82% of all suspensions and 30% of all suspensions involved students receiving special education services. Further, boys were suspended at three times the rate of girls, and foster children were suspended at two and a half times the rate of all other students. The report also finds that African American students, while making up just 5% of the elementary school student population, represent 22% of all suspensions. Early attendance patterns also have a significant impact on academic achievement. The data from this year’s report revealed that three-quarters of students who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade did not meet the California state standards in math and English language arts in the third grade. Despite persistently high rates of absenteeism and suspensions, however, California school districts have taken significant steps to improve elementary school attendance over the past several years:
  • 99% of districts surveyed for this study reported that they have implemented or plan to implement policies and programs to improve elementary school attendance this year.
  • In the 2012-13 school year, just over half of school districts surveyed said that they tracked student attendance data longitudinally (over time). This year, 85% of districts reported that they track attendance longitudinally, allowing teachers and administrators to understand individual student attendance patterns, craft targeted interventions, and evaluate the success of those interventions.
  • Since the 2013-14 school year, 163 school districts (34% of those surveyed) have changed their discipline policies so students do not miss as much school for suspensions, or have reduced their overall number of suspensions.
In addition, the report highlights the progress being made at the state level in collecting and tracking student attendance. At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, all local education agencies in California will for the first time be required to submit to the California Department of Education data on student absences, excused and unexcused, as well as out-of-school suspensions as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Chronic absence rates will also become part of the state’s new accountability system. Attorney General Harris’ 2013 In School + On Track (https://oag.ca.gov/truancy/2013) report contained the first statewide statistics on California’s elementary school truancy crisis and directly linked public education and public safety. The 2014 In School + On Track report (https://oag.ca.gov/truancy/2014) released updated data and looked specifically at gaps in state infrastructure for collecting attendance information and disparities in student attendance and discipline by race, income, and other subgroups such as foster youth. In School + On Track 2015 (https://oag.ca.gov/truancy/2015) allowed for an in-depth look at chronic absence rates by gender and at suspension rates across subgroups, revealing that absence rates tend to vary more by race than by gender, boys have significantly higher suspension rates than girls, and African American boys in particular have the highest elementary school suspension rates. As District Attorney of San Francisco, Attorney General Harris started a citywide elementary school truancy initiative in 2006. In the course of investigating factors contributing to the city’s violent crime rate, she found that 94% of San Francisco homicide victims under age 25 were high school dropouts. Then-District Attorney Harris formed a partnership with the school district to inform parents about their legal duty to ensure that their children attended school, provide parents of chronically truant students with wrap-around services and school-based mediation, and prosecute parents in the most severe cases where other interventions did not work. The initiative also served as a model for SB 1317 (Leno), which defined "chronic truancy" for the first time under state law and established the initiative's model of combining meaningul services with smart sanctions in the California Penal Code.  The bill was sponsored by then-District Attorney Harris and enacted into law in 2010. The report is available in its entirety online at: https://oag.ca.gov/truancy/2016 The photo gallery of the press conference is available at: https://oag.ca.gov/news/photo-gallery  
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