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When Lois Baer was first approached to tackle truancy, she wasn’t too excited. The Santa Clara County deputy district attorney was working juvenile delinquency cases at the time. A former Montessori school headmistress known to her students as Ms. Lois, she’d always been drawn to kids. But dragging them and their frazzled parents into court for tough talk about staying in school didn’t seem like much of a career move. “I thought it was a joke,” says Baer. “I wanted to clean up the streets and all the lofty goals you have when you join the DA’s team.” A decade later, truancy is all she does. Along the way, she’s become an expert on ways school districts can boost attendance and teaches seminars to state prosecutors looking to add teeth to truancy laws. She’s even talked about cutting class on National Public Radio. To Baer, truancy programs are an ounce of prevention. “It’s obvious right from the start. It’s keeping kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system,” Baer said. Truancy is a big problem. In Santa Clara County alone, the DA’s office found that more than 26,000 students habitually skip school. While prosecutors may bristle at the idea of investing resources on busting teens, communities are demanding it. The Alameda County district attorney’s office added a truancy unit after the embattled Oakland Unified School District asked for help. And the San Francisco civil grand jury called Baer to testify about her work in hopes of coaxing the S.F. DA to do the same. “She was the first phone call I made,” said Alameda County Deputy DA Teresa Drenick, who in August launched Alameda’s truancy prosecution program. “She is known throughout the state as an expert and a good teacher.” Drenick and other prosecutors now agree that combating truancy does more than just keep kids in school — it keeps them away from crime. “We know that what links kids in juvenile hall is a failed school experience,” Baer explains. “The thing that links inmates in prison is a failed school experience.” Alameda Chief Assistant DA Nancy O’Malley said those links are one reason her county followed Santa Clara’s lead. “Some of the homicide victims in Oakland are teenagers not in school,” she said. “A lot of the teenagers who were the victims of statutory rape were also truants.” With those stakes becoming clear, Baer’s work has now won the respect of her colleagues. “She has a difficult job because she deals with multiple school districts and sometimes difficult parents,” said Deputy District Attorney Christopher Arriola, who spent two years as a community prosecutor. “She is very patient and supportive, and she really cares about the kids. Everyone wants to be on the homicide team or the gangs team. But working on a truancy assignment, you can change a lot of lives for the better.” Baer charges about 60 parents and 300 teens a year for violating the truancy laws outlined in the Education and Welfare & Institution codes. Both children and parents have their cases heard in juvenile court. Teens can lose their driver’s licenses for a year and be fined as much as $300, which includes court fees. Parents face fines and parenting classes. Baer has also charged a handful of repeat offenders with a misdemeanor contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and in one case, obtained a 50-day jail sentence. “The word’s gotten out that we’ve prosecuted some people,” said Assistant DA Marc Buller. “Some people actually did some jail time over this.” Still, Baer said prosecution is a last resort. Instead, she goes to schools and talks to problem kids, and their parents. “It’s the iron fist in the velvet glove approach,” Baer said. Baer chats with the kids, telling grade-schoolers how to streamline the morning rush — setting their own alarm clocks and picking out clothes the night before. According to the California Education Code, parents and children can be prosecuted for truancy after missing five or more classes. Principals say Baer’s a big help. “They do hold students and parents accountable,” said Bernardo Olmos, principal at San Jose’s James Lick High School. “It works because it actually has teeth.” In about 75 percent of the cases, Baer’s talks cure the truancy problem. But that isn’t the only way Baer measures success. A few years ago, she had to charge a mother who wasn’t sending her daughter to elementary school. “She was so antagonistic to the school, to me, to everyone,” Baer said. But the mom turned it around, Baer says, and later invited her to the daughter’s grade school graduation. “I couldn’t imagine I’d have been any more excited if it had been my own daughter,” Baer said. “I was so proud of this girl and her mother, because she finally got it.”

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