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Monday, September 10, 2007

School Board Not Informed About Changes in Truancy Policy

Apparently in May of last year, the Davis Joint Unified School District in actions to a large degree unbeknownst to the Davis School Board began a multiagency approach to crack down on truancy.

On Thursday of last week, the school board received a one paragraph report from Pam Mari who was Principal at DaVinci High School and now is District Director of Student Services. In her presentation, Ms. Mari laid out what the policy consisted of and in some detail what was going on.

What we have learned stunned many of the elected officials on the Davis School Board. This will be the first in a several part series looking into the actions of the school district and the policy that has led to police presence on the Davis High School campus and truancy sweeps in the Davis community. This first installment focuses heavily upon the school board meeting itself.

According to Pam Mari, there is "grave concern" in the school district about habitual truancy. The district has struggled with a number of students that they simply could not get back into school. These new policies came about through a multiagency approach that to find ways to get students back into school.

Ms. Mari claimed to have derived this policy from Section 6.4 of the California Education Code:
"The measures that I am suggesting are not of my invention, they are explicitly stated in ed code."
This policy is simply an extension of what is already laid out in the education code, according to Pam Mari. The district did not have a lot of success in creating a multiagency approach; that changed last May when the Davis Police Department led by Sgt. John Wilson and Lt. Darren Pytel and district personnel decided to take a step together.

The policy involves a complex web of steps beginning with a letter that the family receives after the three full days of unexcused absences. Then the family will receive a second letter after another three unexcused absences. Along with the letters, each day, there are phone calls to the parents including now on their cell phones where the kids cannot intercept the phone calls. Further steps include a report of the numbers of absences on the students progress and grade reports. If these problems continue there will be more severe punishments culminating in-home visits by police and district personnel and also these truancy sweeps whereby the police go around and “if they saw a child out of school, they approached that child and escorted that child to the school, taking custody of that child.”

According to Pam Mari:
“It’s not the severity but the surety of the consequence that has an effect, so if we can specify the punishment, the warning has no effect.”
The bottom line in her presentation was that they were following the letter of ed code.
“Bottom line is we are doing what we need to do.”
Once Pam Mari finished her presentation, she responded to questions from the members of the school board, it is here that we start to get a fuller picture of the policy and where we might start getting concerned.

First of all, it becomes clear almost from the start that the school board has very little written information about the policy.

At the beginning of her presentation, Pam Mari says:
"As you look through your packet..."
And Board President Jim Provenza responds:
"I don’t think we have a packet, I have a paragraph."
Ms. Mari says just the summary, that's it. But is it?

Responding to questions about detention, Mari has this response:
“Detention I think frankly went the way of ‘all teachers must be married’ and ‘we will all wear boots to school’ it frankly is not a believed you can punish anyone into learning or wanting to be in school. So those have not proven to be effective.”
She may indeed be correct with regards to detention. But is not the policy she is advocating seems to be directed toward forcing and punishing people into learning and being in school. How else could this policy be interpreted other than to punish students and force them to go to school?

It was when the student representative on the board spoke, Amanda López-Lara, that it became more clear that what was being described by Pam Mari looked very different from the student perspective.
"Today was probably the first day most students were actually told these rules. We had never heard of them before, we were not aware of them. I agree it is very good to kid the kids into class again, because I do know there’s a problem at the high school especially with a lot of kids just skipping class and going to parks. But one concern I do have is that a lot of people appreciate Mark Hicks, and I know a lot of kids who are at-risk students who really respect him, but one concern that I had is that I know today during lunch, the whole high school was scared. We were scared because we went to lunch, we weren’t necessarily scared but we were made nervous, because we went out and I don’t think I’ve see that many cop cars at the high school. I saw one across the street, and two and each entrance, and then once I went down the street I’ve had my license for a year, so I wasn’t nervous, but what did make me nervous is that there were cop cars going up or down and I know that there were some students pulled over. I know one student who actually had his license for year and there was a misunderstanding between himself and the police officer. But I do know that a lot of students afterwards were feeling very nervous and had a lot of apprehension towards the police officers."
Furthermore she stated:
"I’m an A student, I have no truancy problems, and I know that made me nervous."
Pam Mari responds that "it is a paradigm shift" and it’s going to take some doing at first. She believes if we can get the kids to come in and then they can work with somebody on a personal level, we just need to get them there. “And then the other half of that story, for kids who are apprehensive because they’ve been misbehaving, that would be a logical consequence.”

Amanda López-Lara however responds,
“Relations I feel as a student, are already prestrained between students and police officers. Good students and bad students... The relations to be completely honest as a student with you, they’re not that great... I know there are some high school students who once they feel apprehensive, they don’t want to listen, they just want to act out.”
At this point, Ginni Davis, who is the Associate Superintendent interjects with a lecture:
"Part of our job Amada, if I could just say that quickly, is that we are teaching people how to be citizens in our society. And when people are out of high school and become adults, they have to get along with police, and the police work for the public to make our environment safe for everybody. So the sooner that people are to understand that police are there to enforce laws that we make in this country, and work with policemen, the more people can be good citizens, and that’s part of the education that we’re responsible for."
School Board Member Keltie Jones also defended the policy:
“[The] missing piece here is to facilitate some positive interactions as well to develop the types of relationships where people won’t necessarily feel apprehensive, they’ll feel like it’s somebody that they know and they’re connected to.”
Keltie Jones advocates facilitating ways to get police officers in with the student leadership groups. But, what Jones appears to be missing is that students are not going to have positive interactions with uniformed police officers who are making a show of force.

School Board Member Tim Taylor however, does not miss this point.
“All I want to say is that we all need to listen very closely to what Amanda is saying because she’s right, there is a very fine line insuring compliance and intimidation. And no matter how well intended they are, police officers can be intimidating. In fact, that’s part of what they are there for, it can be a good thing but it can also be a bad thing. The student perspective… on this is a very important one and how that presence is felt by the student collective is something that we should be very cognizant of.”
School Board President Jim Provenza advocated the need to be able to differentiate between those with legitimate reasons to not be in the high schools and those who are truant.
“We don’t want the fact that you are of high school age [to lead to] everyday being stopped by the police. That would be the exact opposite of what I would want.”
Pam Mari dismissed that concern:
“It would be hard to believe that there is even enough resources to do that.”
However, she then went onto address ways by which students who had legitimate reasons for being off campus could get that straightened out. First, school personnel would be able to receive calls if someone claimed that either they did not go to that school or they had a free period. She also discussed a "Lifetouch" system whereby images are stored into a “hand-held device that would load all of the students schedules so that right on the spot that could be determined and keep any kind of misunderstanding and I want everyone to be respectful of each other.”

Tim Taylor however interjected:
"Pam with all due respect that is interesting, but Jim’s point is that a student with all the reason in the world to be going to the bank, shouldn’t be stopped… It doesn’t matter that once their stopped and police run a check on them that fifteen minutes later they are let out of police control, the problem is the being stopped in the first place. I have a huge concern about it… [He stated he is supportive of the mission to reduce truancy] but there are limits, and I think the limits that Jim is identifying in his question are the ones that I am concerned about.”
This part of the discussion seems to suggest a fairly wide net employed by the police. My concern here is that the moment a student is stopped by the police and checked, that will be a very serious event in their day. They may get angry, humiliated, or afraid. There is a strong likelihood that they will think about this event all day long instead of focusing on school. And so the policy meant to get kids into the classroom to learn may end up in fact disrupting learning.

Once confronted on this point by Tim Taylor however Pam Mari become a bit standoffish while at the same time appears to back off her previous statement.
"Let’s not dance around it, what you’re saying is when does stopping for a very good reason become harassing, and the police don’t want to get there, they don’t have enough humans to get there I don’t think."
And yet as we will see in the future installments of this series, this may be exactly what is going on.

Pam Mari then directs the next comment to the student representative:
"The reason that you haven’t heard about any of these things until today is this discussion right here, so you’re really hearing it first and there’s a lot of just simply communication that needs to follow this. And secondly, I absolutely here you about what you’re saying, so you do have that. And interestingly enough, there could have been an incident that happened today that had nothing to do with anything about this topic, but the last perception is crucial."
Board Member Gina Daleiden then talks about the confusion involving the open campus policy and whether students and parents even know what the policy is--this apparently came up at a PTA meeting.

Pam Mari responded:
“I can’t imagine how they don’t know, but let us assume all things being equal… It is a closed campus with an open lunch… It says so in the guide. If you do not have a class period… then there are two options, one is to have a study hall and the other is to petition for an actual free period where you don’t have school obligations.”
Those require the student meet a grade threshold and unit threshold. But the bottom line is yes, there are students who have a free period and are free to leave campus and could go to the grocery store or the bank.

Jim Provenza then expressed his concerns about the policy and the lack of board notification. He stated that he wants district counsel to take a look.
“This is the first time this has come to board and we saw nothing in writing, just the one paragraph. I’m not comfortable at this point."
Ginni Davis interrupts:
"Jim, this is not an action item, it’s for information and we’re happy to back to you and give you in writing what we’re going to do, but we do need to enforce ed code.”
Provenza more forcefully responds this is "something that needs to come back to us."
“This has never come before the board and I wouldn’t assume that you have board authority…”
Keltie Jones once again strongly defends the policy.
"I have to say that I think this is a very detailed well-thought out administrative approach to this. This is something they’ve been looking at and studying for a long time. They’ve got public agencies that are well-informed about codes and what the requirements are in following the codes… As Pam said, this is not about students who are going to the bank at lunch time, this is about students who are not showing up for school on a consistent regular basis, this about students were are losing. If there’s any way that we can make the connection to get to them and talk to them and find out what their needs are and find out how we can meet there needs, then I think this is something that is worth doing and I think it is within the realm of the administration to do it."
Mr. Provenza responds:
"I don’t disagree with anything that you said except the last statement. This is something that I think is a policy item that should be approve by the board. We should have some sort of memorandum of understanding in force with the police department. We should know exactly how it’s going to be implemented and we should have procedures to guard against unintended consequences… As a board member, I will bring this back to the board… At the very least, we have to something in writing, guidelines, something that all parents and students can understand."
Now Pam Mari responds:
"Jonathan Raven, traffic office commission, the entire Davis police department, this is black and white."
While she stated this Ms. Mari holds up a stack of papers that are paper clipped together and one has to wonder if this is information that was not provided to the board. It sure seemed like she had something there that they did not.

Provenza firmly and forcefully responds:
"We have one paragraph in front of us, I’m sorry that’s not enough for me. If you feel that you have the authority to go ahead with it, you can do that, but it won’t be with my blessing, I’m going to place it on the agenda and ask our attorney to review it, there’s too many lawsuits against the school district we want to make sure we do it right and maybe we are doing it right, but I don’t have enough information before me now, not after the discussion."
Keltie Jones again defends the policy:
"We’ve been talking about the sweeps, and [I] want to clarify that’s it is not just about tagging somebody who looks like they’re a particular age, my understanding… is that the sweeps are for specific students that the district has identified as… here’s the fifteen students, here’s the twenty students who have missed x number of days so far, here are the students we want you to see, here are the homes, see if you can bring them in. So it’s not just random let’s pull out anybody who looks like they may be of high school age."
However, Tim Taylor responds:
“I don’t know what the sweeps are. Based on the paragraph the sweeps are of 15 or 20 students. But based on Amanda’s comments perhaps other things are going on that are beyond the 15 students. I don’t know what is and I’m not trying to find out tonight.”
He further states:
"I have a problem with the school district supporting some kind of action that I don’t really understand or know who it’s about or where it’s going to be or who gets caught in the net until we have a discussion with the city."
The story at this point shifts from sweeps to 15 to 20 students who are the worst offenders being targeted.

Pam Mari at this point feels the need to back of her more hard-line stance from earlier as it becomes clear that the board with the exception of Keltie Jones is very uncomfortable with all of this:
"Perhaps we are really hurting on this word sweep... And if the word sweep were eliminated and it was home visit, I wonder if we would be as hurting. I apologize if that word is what is causing the trouble, that’s a word that the police department uses to mean on a given day we are going to use a lot of our energy and do this.”
Tim Taylor however clarifies why he is uncomfortable and it does not have to do with the word, "sweep."
"One of the things we are struggling with is that regardless of whether the law allows certain things to be done, if they haven’t been done, we have two choices, we can hit the ground at 100 miles per hour or we can have a discussion with ourselves and the community and the public and discuss what are we going to do and I think what you’re hearing and certainly what I’m feeling certainly is that the 100 mile an hour approach while perhaps legal may not be the best fit. Because people are gong to feel like they are getting run over. That will cause community pullback… instead of buy-in, which I think we need, that will have the opposite effect."
The board is determined to have discussions with both the city and to have an action-item placed on a future agenda to discuss this. From my perspective, there are problems with this policy.

First, it was put into place without the elective body of this community even having knowledge of what was going on.

Second, when the board expressed concerns about this both administrators insisted that they had the authority to do this administratively and the perception I go from this meeting, their attitude was that they could legally do this and they frankly did not care what the board said.

Third, and this will be examined much more closely, I really do not believe we know what is actually going on, at the school level with regards to this policy. Pam Mari backed way off the claim this was some kind of general sweep to suggest this was a 15-20 student operation. But what I hear from the students and others on the campus, that is not necessarily accurate.

Furthermore, it is not clear this is in fact directed by ed code. It is clear that the police and the DA's office were in on the planning of that, but that is not the full extent of juvenile services in this community, and it is not clear that they were involved in planning this and in fact, just the opposite, there are indications that they were not.

Finally, I am simply uncomfortable with this policy. Pam Mari claims that everything was done to exhaust the alternatives, but then she and Ginni Davis made the call as to what to do, rather than have community discussion on the issue or bring the board in. So we have a choice--we can take them at their word or we can ask questions. Mari claims this is non-punitive, but the students do not believe that is the case. This looks to me to be sheer intimidation.

As Tim Taylor suggested, that is not going to lead to buy-in and cooperation from the community, it is going to lead to pull-back. He made, I believe the most pertinent point, even if they have the legal authority to do this, the very fact that this is a change of direction--we have not done this before--should necessitate a discussion as to the right approach. That did not happen here.

Now we will need to learn what this policy entails and what impacts it is having.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting