Truancy rate in Berkeley school district higher than California average

Anthony Bongco/Staff

Berkeley Unified School District’s truancy rate is significantly higher than the state’s average for the 2011-12 academic year.

In a 2013 report, state Attorney General Kamala Harris raised concerns that a trend of rising truancy rates across the state could lead to a rise in high school dropouts, with dropouts costing the state $46 billion a year.

Truancy is defined as a student’s missing at least half an hour of class without an excuse at least three times in one academic year, according to the California Department of Education. About six out of every 10 students in the Berkeley school district are truants.

The district’s truancy rate, which is 60.2 percent in the 2011-12 academic year, is far higher than the state average of 28.5 percent during the same time period, the department’s website states.

According to the report, 82 percent of prisoners in the United States are high school dropouts.

Despite these truancy statistics, Reaa Puri, a former Berkeley High student and current freshman at UC Berkeley, believes the situation is actually far less serious.

“I don’t think truancy is correlated with a rise in crime,” Puri said. “There are students who skip school due to already having gotten into colleges.”

Over the past few years, the school district has developed new approaches to resolve the problem. New measures include an automatic system that informs parents when their children are absent, as well as changes in the way students are punished for truancy, said Karen Hemphill, president of the school board.

Two years ago, students’ grades dropped by one letter if they had five unexcused absences, according to Hemphill. Now, truants are barred from attending events, such as prom or gamedays, and are given opportunities to make up for the hours they lost by attending Saturday school.

“It’s like ‘The Breakfast Club’ — but they actually do work,” said Hemphill.

Chronic truants are referred to the School Attendance Review Board, where school administrators engage with students and parents to discuss the underlying issues for the truancy and to work together to create a solution. The SARB can also report a student — or, in the case of elementary school truancy, a family — to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

Currently, the school is partnering with Berkeley Police Department and implementing increased security at campus entrances to help staunch rising truancy rates. If the police sees a student under 16 outside of class during school hours, they will escort the student back to school, Hemphill said.

“There is a message now on campus about going to class,” she said.

Contact Giacomo Toginini at [email protected]cal.org.