Kids caught cutting school in Richmond will earn a trip to a community center for counseling, then to juvenile court with their parents under a new city law that takes effect this fall.

City leaders say the municipal code change adds teeth to long-languishing efforts to curb truancy in Richmond, where more than 100 enrolled students self-educate on the streets every day, some committing crimes or falling victim to them.

"It's a noncriminal process," police Chief Chris Magnus said. "It's about getting kids help with the issues that lead them to the street."

The antidote comes with a ticket, as with speeding. But unlike traffic infractions, the court will likely reserve fines for chronic offenders.

Most of those caught can instead expect court-mandated social services for themselves and their families, from mental health and drug counseling to help with conflict resolution and parenting classes.

Most neighboring cities already employ a daytime curfew for minors, and report success in reducing truancy because it creates financial incentive for parents to keep better track of their children, as well a direct legal culpability from the courts.

Richmond's version innovates further, by engaging community nonprofits to diagnose and treat underlying problems that drive students away from school. The city needs it, Magnus said, because the scope of Richmond's problem far exceeds its ability to administer a traditional, punishment-driven approach.


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"We have many, many young people who are absent from school almost every day," Magnus said. "These kids are kind of lost."

As it prepares for the school year that begins next week, the West Contra Costa school district offers no precise census of students absent and unaccounted for during a typical school day in Richmond, nor of the many more dropped from enrollment yearly because of chronic absence.

The district estimates that about 95 percent of its enrolled students came to class each day last school year, on average. That means about 1,500 miss class daily, excused or otherwise, in cities the district serves. The district lost $3.9 million in state funding last year because of unexcused absences.

That statistic does not include dropouts.

"We're trying to get the issue resolved," said Wendell Greer, an associate superintendent. "The goal is to get them to school and keep them there the whole day."

Police estimates of truancy in Richmond derive from the daily experience of patrol officers observing the streets, and their occasional truancy sweeps. The last, a three-day effort in March, netted 425 students.

In the past, a patrol officer who stopped a truant spent at least an hour documenting the case, calling parents and waiting for an adult to pick them up. In a city with frequent calls for service, police have little time for such an approach.

However, department data show that, historically, the highest rates of juvenile crime and victimization occur during school hours. Police hope to solve both problems by shifting much of that work to nonprofits that run community centers.

Since the city council approved the daytime curfew ordinance in April, the department has enlisted the Richmond Police Activities League, the RYSE youth center and Social Progress, Inc. to serve as drop-off points, where staffers will supervise and counsel the kids.

"Any time a young person comes through our doors, the process is the same. We get them signed up as a member, and we talk to them and get to know who they are," said Kanwarpal Dhaliwal, co-director of the RYSE Center. "It's a familial approach. We're not just a program."

Most high school-age truants will wind up at RYSE, while the Richmond Police Activities League will take most younger kids.

A truancy ticket requires both the minor and his or her legal guardian to attend a court hearing. Police say the juvenile traffic court judge at Richmond's Contra Costa Superior Court plans to set aside an afternoon each week for truancy cases.

While a citation will not affect a student's criminal record, failure to follow court orders could result in fines for parents.

The hearings involve no attorneys; a police employee will offer recommendations, based largely on nonprofit counselor assessments, and ticketed minors and their families may speak on their own behalf.

Judge Nancy Davis Stark, who declined to comment, decides all penalties.

Richmond's ordinance allows for fines as high as $500, but Magnus expects fines will generally apply to repeat offenders. More common court orders might include community service and referrals to programs treating home-life problems.

Police and nonprofits are assembling a list of low- or no-cost referral programs for the court, and ticketing will begin in mid-September, Magnus said.

"It's been a very proactive approach to truancy," Greer said. "It brings awareness and better informs the community and parents about programs that support the child during the whole day."

Contact Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/kfischer510.

Richmond's Daytime Curfew
The curfew applies to unsupervised minors in public or commercial areas, from 30 minutes after the school day begins until 30 minutes before it ends. Officers can make allowances for special circumstances.
Police will ticket:
  • Minors excused from school by their parents for illness, if unsupervised in public
  • Minors from other communities found in Richmond
  • Minors not enrolled in school
  • Minors accompanied by an older friend
    Police will not ticket:
  • Students older than 17
  • Minors accompanied by a responsible adult, such as a parent or older relative
  • Minors inside private residences
  • Non-truant minors who have unusual school schedules. Police encourage them to carry documentation.
    If your child gets a ticket:
  • A parent or legal guardian will be called
  • Police take the minor to a community center for counseling and supervision
  • Minors may not leave until a responsible adult picks them up
    Source: Richmond Police Department