Community leaders came together Tuesday to discuss the impact of student truancy and what the community can do to help the Belen School District keep students in school.

Representatives from the State Child, Youth and Family Department’s protective services division and juvenile probation officers, the district attorney’s office, law enforcement, magistrate court, business community and state legislators joined Belen School District administrators in a discussion on school truancy.

Superintendent Don Duran organized the discussion to open channels of communication between the various agencies involved with truancy and to find solutions to the problem at hand.

“Healthy schools are about healthy communities. And healthy communities are about healthy schools,” Duran said. “Hopefully, as a community, we can develop strategies to get school truancy under control.

“We want to find a way to reduce absenteeism at Belen schools. When a child is habitually absent, they are setting a pattern that will lead to failure. When they are not in school, they are missing vital pieces of their education.”

The group heard from principals and teachers about their experiences with dealing with parents of students who are habitually absent.

“We had one student who was either absent or tardy for 98 days of last year,” said Dan MacEachen, principal of La Merced Elementary. “With further review of this fourth-grader’s accumulated records, we discovered that, during her school career, she had missed the equivalent of one year of school.”

“Last year, I dealt with a kindergarten student who had missed 52 days of school,” said Julie Benavidez, principal at Jaramillo Elementary. “When discussing the issue with her father, he said ‘What was the big deal? They don’t learn anything in kindergarten.’ What am I to say when a parent has that attitude?”

“When dealing with a student’s academic concerns, a common thread is missing school,” said Kelly Williams-Page, elementary teacher at Dennis Chavez Elementary. “When they miss time in class, it is irretrievable in the quality of instruction and experiences they get. Having children do make-up work does not always inform them or give them the educational experience that the day in class would have.”

After hearing the frustrations that the educators experience dealing with truancy, Duran asked representatives from the state agencies involved in dealing with habitual truancy to tell what they can do to help the problem.

“After receiving a referral from a school district regarding truancy and parent failure to rectify the problem, we investigate to determine if there is a situation where the child is in eminent danger,” said Pamela L. McKenzie, county manager of the Children, Youth and Families Department’s protective service division. “Absence from school alone does not give us leverage to do anything. But, usually, a lot of absences of younger children has to do with other issues at home, which we can get involved in.”

“There is no doubt that children with high absences come from dysfunctional families,” MacEachen said.

Peggy Gutjahr, Belen School District’s health services coordinator, said one thing that would help is for various agencies to work with such families to be able to share information.

“Sharing information be-tween agencies has been difficult. However, the Valencia Community Partnership is working to open those channels of communication,” Gutjahr said.

Ron Lopez, assistant district attorney for Valencia County, said that truancy can be addressed with the compulsory attendance law, but the length of time it takes to process the case through the judicial system can take up to 10 months. “The fine is only $25 to $100, which doesn’t really have the desired effect on the parents,” he said.

The group agreed that laws regarding student truancy need to be more stringent. Represen-tatives of law enforcement agencies said they really don’t have any power when dealing with the youth and their parents.

“We have no teeth, unless there is a judge that says ‘you will go to school,'” said Carlton D. Liggins, juvenile probation officer for the 13th Judicial District.

Magistrate Danny Hawkes said the municipalities, county and school districts in the county need to work together to establish ordinances and policies that give law enforcement more power than the compulsory attendance law provides.

Other concerns and ideas that were aired included:

  • Belen Police Chief Paul Skotchdopole said his officers will stop and talk to youth when they see them at the park or on the street during school hours. “But when they ask them about school, they are frequently told by the youth, ‘Oh, we’re home schooled.’ How can our officers know if they are home schooled or not?” he said.
  • Belen High School Prin-cipal Joe Trujillo suggested the school district have a truancy officer with the power to deal with the issue.

He also supported the idea of a school-resource police officer on the high school campus.

By the end of the 90-minute discussion, Duran asked the participants if they would commit to supporting a campaign to eliminate truancy in the Belen School District.

“I would like to start a campaign in which businesses in our community would post a flyer supporting children being in school,” Duran said.

“This is not the end of this group’s work. We will be focusing on this issue and continue to work toward eliminating truancy.”

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Jane Moorman