LOS ANGELES -- California must act to reduce rampant truancy that saw an estimated 1 million elementary students absent in the last school year and may cost the state billions of dollars through increased crime and poverty, according to a study released Monday by the state attorney general's office.
"The empty desks in our public elementary school classrooms come at a great cost to California," the report said.
The report, scheduled for release at an anti-truancy symposium in Los Angeles, said children have unexcused absences from school for a number of reasons, including family issues, neighborhood safety concerns and bullying. It called for a sweeping battle against absenteeism that brings together parents, educators, lawmakers, law enforcement and community groups.
"The findings are stark. We are failing our children," the report's executive summary concluded.
The report was based on information from around 550 elementary schools, as well as surveys and interviews with school district and county education officials, district attorneys involved with anti-truancy work, non-profit groups, parents and state prison inmates.
It cited California Department of Education figures that found nearly 30 percent of all public school students were truant during the 2011-2012 school year -- including about 1 in 5 elementary schoolers.
Nearly 2,000 elementary schools -- about 30 percent -- reported truancy rates of between 20 and 40 percent and nearly 10 percent had even higher rates, the report said.
"Some schools report that more than 92 percent of students were truant" that year, the report said.
The report also estimated that about 1 million elementary school children were truant in the 2012-2013 year, based on a sampling of school districts, and that nearly 83,000 missed 10 percent or more of the school year due to unexcused absences.
"To put this into perspective: we are discussing a 6-year-old in the first grade who has stacked up as many as 20, 30, even 80 absences in a 180-day school year," the report said.
More than 250,000 students missed more than 18 school days in the year, the report estimated.
School districts, who receive government funding based on student attendance, lose $1.4 billion per year to truancy, the report estimated.
Studies indicate that chronically truant students are more likely to drop out of high school and to end up jobless or turn to crime, the report said.
"Factoring in the costs of incarceration and lost economic productivity and tax revenues, dropouts cost California an estimated $46.4 billion per year," the report said.
"To be smart on crime, combating truancy must be a core goal of state public safety policy," the report concluded.
That means dealing with issues that lead to absenteeism in early grades, including health problems such as asthma and diabetes as well as family struggles that range "from the relatively mundane to the truly harrowing," the report said.
"In our interviews with district officials, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, evictions and job loss were repeated over and over as obstacles to school attendance," the report said.
The report cited a 30-year-old mother of three who was trying to hold down a job while the children's father was behind bars.
"The mother understood that school was important but reported that she was unable to make the kids go to sleep at night and every morning she had to fight with her three kids to get to school. Some days she just gave up," according to the report.
Another woman, asked what would help get her child to school, replied: "a permanent place to live.stability, safety and less stress regarding where we are spending the night tonight," the report said.
"Families who live in unsafe neighborhoods are reluctant to allow their children to walk to school," the report said.
A school district official in one city mentioned a girl who missed school because she had seen a killing and "was afraid to go outside," the report said.
The study laid out a blueprint for battling absenteeism by collecting better statewide attendance information; providing early intervention such as sending letters to parents or making home visits; dealing with issues that lead to truancy and, as a last resort, prosecuting repeat offenders under the state's anti-truancy laws.
It also said lawmakers should consider making school truancy and absence rates a factor in judging a school's performance.