ANCHORAGE - School districts in western Alaska have found a new way to crack down on truancy - or rather, an old way: They're getting police to enforce a years-old state law that lets them fine parents whose children skip school.
Court records show some parents are being fined hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, if their children miss too many school days.
State law says children between the ages of 7 and 16 have to be in school or their parents can be fined up to $500 for every five unexcused absences. But not all school districts are making sure the law is enforced. Anchorage Superintendent Carol Comeau, for instance, can't recall her district pursuing a truancy violation in court in at least a decade.
In rural Alaska - in regions such as Unalakleet, Kotzebue and Bethel - districts are turning to the truancy law as a way to get kids back in classrooms.
"It's not to get people into court. It's to get kids in school," said Sgt. Duane Stone, a supervisor for the trooper post in Kotzebue.
In all three regions, a series of warnings and meetings with parents generally come first, and courts allow the families to reduce or avoid the fees simply by improving attendance.
Villages stretching from Kotzebue Sound east to Kobuk, the Northwest Arctic Borough School District may be the latest where parents are being fined.
Attendance counselor Michelle Woods, a former police detective, said she's been trying to ticket parents in communities outside Kotzebue since she was hired four years ago. At first, some schools officials worried they wouldn't have support from local school boards. The feeling was that troopers and courts are too busy fielding felonies, she said.
This year things are beginning to change, with troopers issuing truancy citations under the blessing of the district attorney's office, she said.
"No attorney needs to be assigned. It's just like a speeding ticket," she said.
The first parent fined among the village schools in her region was the former village public safety officer, who was charged $100 last month, Woods said.
"In my tenure here, at least in four years, we've never before had this kind of support from entities and law enforcement," Woods said.
Court also have fined parents in the Unalakleet-based Bering Strait School District more than $24,000 in truancy cases involving 49 children last year, said Carl White, a special assistant to the superintendent.