Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

The fines attached to Baker City’s new truancy ordinance might be the first thing parents notice about the regulation, but it’s not the main purpose of the plan.

The goal is not to penalize parents, says Lt. Dustin Newman, who was instrumental in developing the community’s first truancy ordinance approved by the Baker City Council on Feb. 14.

It is an amendment to the city’s curfew ordinance, which has been in place since 1988.

In the past, the city’s only recourse in dealing with truants was to fine parents for violating a state statue that requires them to supervise their children, Newman said.

“This takes truancy from being a crime and makes it a violation,” Newman said. “We want to figure out where the problem actually is. Is it a child issue or a parent issue.”

In the past, police had no legal grounds to take enforcement action against children who appeared to be skipping school, Newman said.

“The ordinance gives officers the legal justification to investigate,” he said.

Under the state statute officers dealt only with the parents. And the process, which started at the school level, could take as long as two to four weeks before police would even get to the stage of citing the parents.

Newman points to a flow chart that police were bound by in the past. The chart details the School District’s process. It begins with notifying parents of unexcused absences through the Blackboard parent notification system.

School officials next mail letters after a child has missed four days and then eight days of school.

After eight unexcused absences, the process calls for scheduling a meeting that parents and students are notified about through certified letters. Copies of the letters are sent to the school superintendent and the District Attorney’s office.

Students showing improved attendance after the meeting are required to check in daily until the school is satisfied that attendance is no longer an issue.

On the other hand, if those students continue to show no improvement over the next two weeks, police — under the old system — could deliver citations to the student’s parents or guardians.

The new ordinance allows police to be involved much sooner.

“Now we can identify a problem early and handle it early to make sure we get kids back in school,” Newman said.

Parents can rest assured that police won’t be citing them or their children if the students have legitimate reasons for being away from the classroom. For example, there is an open campus during lunchtime at Baker High School and students are allowed to leave the school to get lunch elsewhere, Newman said.

Other students also are out of the classroom for legitimate reasons sanctioned by the school and the rules don’t apply to them or to those attending Baker Charter Schools or those who are home-schooled.

“It’s mainly for those kids who are truant and hanging out in the park four hours a day,” Newman said. “A lot of issues with truancy revolve around ‘when the cats away the mice will play.’ A lot of times kids will be doing something mischievous.”

But under the new ordinance, all police officers can check out situations occurring during school hours that indicate children are truant.

Because of the relationship School Resource Officer Lance Woodward has built with students, he is in a position to know which students are of more concern, Newman said.

All officers can stop to talk with students, and if they learn the young people are skipping school, officers are now authorized to take them back to class. Students will be referred to the Juvenile Department and their parents will be notified.

In some cases, students won’t need to go through that scenario a second time.

“When the Juvenile Department gets the initial referral they will set the foundation,” Newman said. “The ultimate goal is for kids to be in school and be successful.”

Staci Erickson, Juvenile Court supervisor, has recently developed new policies on how to handle students cited under the truancy ordinance.

For the first offense, students will receive a warning and be counseled on the need to stay in school, Erickson said.

The second time, students would be required to complete 10 hours of community service work within 90 days. Tasks they would be required to perform might include raking leaves or cleaning at the Courthouse, working with school janitors and working at homes for the elderly, Erickson said.

If a student is caught skipping school a third time, he or she would be sentenced to 20 hours of community service work to be completed in 90 days. For the fourth and subsequent violations, students would be fined $25.

Erickson said she likes the new ordinance because she sees what happens to students who turn their backs on their education.

Not attending school is the No. 1 indicator for young people to become repeat offenders, she said.

“From juveniles to adults, if they don’t have a foundation and an education, I don’t like the outcome,” Erickson said.

She said the Juvenile Department has some clout to help ensure students stay in school and that their parents hold them accountable.

“Once kids are on formal probation, we can make parents engage,” she said. “Parents sign parental supervision agreements,” which amounts to having parents “sign contracts to be parents.”

See more in the March 8, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.