Click photo to enlarge
Sierra LaMar, left, with big sister Danielle. (Courtesy Danielle LaMar)

The day Sierra LaMar failed to get on the school bus at 7:15 a.m., teachers logged her into their computers as absent, hour by hour, throughout the day.

But not until 6 p.m. -- nearly 11 hours later -- did Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill send an automated email and phone call to the mother of the teen who vanished almost two weeks ago.

The time lag cost critical search hours and frustrated Marlene LaMar, who drove to the high school that March 16 afternoon hoping her 15-year-old daughter missed the bus home. After more frantic calls to friends and family, she called police 27 minutes after receiving the 6 p.m. email that her daughter never showed up for school.

"They had no idea of the situation before they got that email," Sierra's older sister, Danielle LaMar, 21, said of her parents. "Especially in this case, time definitely matters."

Yet, in an age of instant communication and constant connections, Morgan Hill's delay in alerting parents about unreported absences is typical among Bay Area high schools -- a practice some parents and child-safety advocates said is behind the times and needs to change.

In an informal survey of nine school districts around the Bay Area, from Oakland and Concord to San Jose and Morgan Hill, most wait to notify parents of a child's absence until the end of the day, especially at high schools.


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"There's nothing illustrating the flaw in that system more than Sierra's disappearance," said Marc Klaas, whose daughter, Polly, was kidnapped from their home in Petaluma and killed in 1994. His KlaasKids Foundation is organizing volunteer searchers for Sierra through Sunday. "Maybe they need to re-evaluate that."

For years, schools have used these systems to improve attendance and curb truancy -- not as safety alerts. Even Berkeley School District, one of the few districts that automatically notifies parents about unexpected absences, says its system is primarily a tool to "give parents a chance to correct behavior," said Berkeley spokesman Mark Coplan.

No one knows at this point whether an earlier alert would have made a difference in finding Sierra. But kidnap experts point to one sobering fact: Most kidnappers with murderous intentions kill their victims within three hours. On Wednesday, nearly two weeks after Sierra disappeared, investigators began searching waterways in the Morgan Hill area, and about 100 volunteers -- 500 fewer than Tuesday -- fanned out across the Coyote Valley searching for clues.

Claudia Rossi, an elected trustee for the Morgan Hill Unified School District, said Wednesday evening that the district should definitely look into the issue, including the possibility of connecting alerts with parents' cellphones and alerting earlier in the day.

"Obviously with this missing case, we're all wondering what can we do better?" Rossi said. Still, "can everything we do safeguard and keep a tragedy like this from happening? Sadly, no."

Morgan Hill parents say that from grade school through high school, automated attendance alerts don't go out until the end of the day. However, parents who want to check for themselves can log into the school's Blackboard Connect system at any time to see whether their child has missed a class.

Despite the variety of ways to reach parents instantly, many high schools wait to contact them in the evening.

"A lot go out at 6 p.m. because that's when parents are home," Karen Fuqua, spokeswoman for San Jose Unified School District, said of the district's high school alerts. "If the message goes home to the child, they can be easily deleted before the parent even hears it."

At San Jose's elementary schools, Fuqua said, staff members make calls beginning in the morning and throughout the day.

Berkeley School District appears to be one of the few in the Bay Area that takes advantage of the latest technology: Parents of Berkeley middle and high school students instantly receive a phone call, a text message or an email, based on each parent's preference, when a teacher logs in the absence.

In Fremont and New Haven school districts in the East Bay, parents of elementary and middle school students receive morning calls if a child is absent without an excuse. Like Morgan Hill and San Jose, parents of high schoolers in those districts, plus Oakland and Mt. Diablo in Concord, receive automated calls at the end of the day.

At many public elementary and private Catholic schools across the Bay Area, however, parents are alerted much sooner.

Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose calls as many as six phone numbers -- mobile, work and home of each parent -- to reach someone whose child doesn't show up for first period.

Traditionally, elementary schools are more likely to call parents earlier than high schools, because of less complicated schedules and smaller enrollment.

But companies that run parent-notification systems say they are easily modified for instant notification -- no matter how big the school or unwieldy the schedule -- but they leave it up to schools to choose when to send alerts.

"We've come out with mobile apps, but not all districts have seen this as important enough to deploy those to their parents," said Mark Child of Parentlink, one of numerous companies, including PowerSchool and Blackboard Connect, that operate similar systems. Those services also can provide parents grade reports and emergency notifications in case of a disaster or school lockdown.

"Until there is an emergency, most schools assume parents are getting the messages the way they should," he said.

At Burnett Elementary in Morgan Hill, headquarters for the volunteer search for Sierra, Lisa Silva, a parent of a Sobrato High School senior, said she wishes the calls to parents went out sooner.

"If a parent had gotten a call, they would have been on it immediately," she said. "Precious time went by, and you can't get that time back."

Staff writers Katy Murphy, Sharon Noguchi, Rob Dennis and Theresa Harrington contributed to this report.

SIERRA LAMAR FUND

A reward fund has been established for clues leading to Sierra's discovery, and to help offset the search costs. Checks can be made out to the Sierra LaMar Fund at any Chase Bank, or at http://tinyurl.com/sierralamar.