Taking aim at high rates of chronic absenteeism in its schools, Bakersfield City School District brokered a partnership with Bakersfield Police Department to assign two full-time officers to work with at-risk students, the organizations announced Thursday.

The decision is being touted by school and police officials as a way to rein back rates of chronic absenteeism that are higher than both the state and county averages, build a positive relationship between students and law enforcement, and provide mentoring to at-risk kids who may not have positive adult role models in their lives.

“This is a holistic approach to making our city safer, taking care of our children like we should and moving things forward,” BPD Chief Lyle Martin said at Emerson Middle School Thursday after unveiling the two school resource officers who began roving among BCSD’s 43 school sites full-time starting that afternoon. Their combined salaries would cost the district roughly $125,000 annually, however their current contract ends June 30, 2018.

The officers, Sandeep Malhi and Charles Pratt, will not have an assigned desk at a school site and won’t intervene in student disciplinary matters, school officials stressed. Instead, their primary duties will be acting as “liaison for the school district” to determine the cause of chronic absenteeism, Martin said.

Roughly 4,000 of BCSD’s 33,030 students were considered chronically absent during the 2016-2017 school year, meaning they missed at least 10 percent of instructional days with excused or unexcused absences. The rate is 2 percentage points higher than the county average, and about 3 percentage points higher than the state.

Some schools fare worse than others, according to a review of California Department of Education data. About 25 percent of students at Stella Hills Elementary School, for example, were considered chronically absent in 2016-2017 — the highest rate districtwide. Meanwhile, roughly one mile away, Downtown Elementary — the district’s prestigious commuter school which selects students by lottery and gives preference to kids with parents who work downtown — boasts BCSD’s lowest chronic absence rate of less than 1 percent.

Pratt and Malhi will likely be spending more of their time working with students in schools that have higher absence rates, like Stella Hills, said BCSD Director of Instructional Support Services Division Tim Fulenwider.

The advantage of having those officers on duty full-time, Fulenwider explained, is that they’ll be able to perform home visits when students are consistently absent.

With the resources available before officers were hired, the district relied upon office assistants charged with calling parents, sending out letters and encouraging kids to come to school. If those measures failed, they would enter into a School Attendance Review Board meeting and involve school social workers to intervene.

“The issue is staff doing [home visits] have full-time jobs, so you’re pulling them out of school sites, and one visit is hours off a school site,” BCSD Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Mark Luque said. “When you have a absenteeism rate like we do, it’s a big number. It’s in essence, a full-time task in itself.”

Now, officers will be able to make those home visits, Luque said. More importantly, they’ll be building positive relationships with students while on campus.

When the idea was first introduced, the concept of having officers on campus had some school leaders fearful with examples of at least one student being tased at a local high school fresh in their mind.

“My gut reaction was ‘school to prison pipeline,’” said Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association President Steve Comstock, who added that he changed his mind after speaking with officials at other large urban districts that have forged similar partnerships with law enforcement.

He’s heard stories of officers playing basketball with students, spending time with them during breaks and forging mentoring relationships with kids. It’s gotten students to view police in a positive light, he said.

“We’re here to have a good time and interact with the kids and make sure the kids are comfortable interacting with us as law enforcement,” Pratt said.

At the same time, that includes digging beneath the surface to determine why so many kids are missing school, Martin said.

“We as a police department can partner with them to remove some of those barriers. Sometimes it could be some type of toxic stress or things going on in the home, whether it’s domestic violence or mental health issues,” Martin said.

Addressing chronic absenteeism issues early could also ease criminal behavior in the future, Martin said.

When kids are left alone, unsupervised, and are skipping school, mischief is natural, he said.

“The research out there shows that absenteeism leads to experimentation with drugs, which leads to other types of issues, which then leads to crime at some point,” Martin said. “If we can head this off at the front end, we may never have to deal with these kids. It’s a win-win. The kids are successful, the families are successful and we as a community will be successful.”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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