Elk Grove mom took daughter on an ‘educational’ vacation to Mexico. Now she’s failing social sciences.

Student activism revives California’s truancy debate

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

A recent surge in student activism is forcing Sacramento-area school administrators to reevaluate what constitutes an excused absence—and whether educational family vacations should fall under that umbrella.

In March, Nai Saechao took daughter Hayden Garza out of her seventh-grade class at T.R. Smedberg Middle School in Elk Grove for a vacation to Mexico. Upon their return, Saechao says she learned Hayden, an honors student, wouldn’t be allowed to make up nine class days of missed assignments in social sciences, destining her for a failing grade. Saechao thinks Hayden, who currently has two As and a B in three other classes, is paying too steep a price for her decision.

“This trip to Mexico was an educational experience because she was able to learn and experience the Mexican culture and their way of life,” Saechao said. “As an immigrant myself, I want my daughter to see the difference in that quality of life in the U.S. versus in other countries. My daughter now has to see an F every time she checks her grade because this teacher refuses to give her makeup work without an explanation. This cannot be healthy for her self-esteem.”

Smedberg principal Richard Wall and Hayden’s teacher responded to SN&R’s requests for comment by referring to school codes, which don’t require an instructor to provide makeup work for unexcused absences.

This isn’t a new issue. In October, a Rocklin school district sent a truancy letter to parents who had taken their 10-year-old son out of class for three days to see last year’s total solar eclipse in Oregon.

Truancy has long been a closely watched issue in schools, where funding is tied to attendance. In December, the California Department of Education began monitoring truancy as a measure of schools’ performance on its new online dashboard, The Sacramento Bee reported last year. With the state paying closer attention to school attendance and a new wave of student activism finding its voice through mass walkouts, some area school districts are struggling to find a balance that pleases both sides.

On March 13, one day before a national school walkout to protest gun violence, Davis Joint Unified School District informed parents that students who left class would have their absences marked “unexcused” under school rules. Madhavi Sunder, a professor of law at UC Davis and member of the Davis Joint Unified School District Board of Education, was disappointed in the district’s reaction to what she saw as a positive expression of freedom from Davis elementary and secondary school students.

“Districts across the country encouraged schools to participate in the 17-minute program to honor the 17 victims who were killed in Parkland,” Sunder said. “I was frankly disappointed that Davis took a more tentative approach to this national event, which was first and foremost to honor the innocent fallen.”

Sacramento City Unified School District didn’t penalize students who demonstrated against gun violence as long as they returned to class. But it was a different story one week later, when C.K. McClatchy High School, which is in the district, flagged students who left class to protest sexual violence.

In a written statement, Laura Fitzgerald of Fem Dems of Sacramento characterized the move as a double standard toward sexual violence.

“The fact that [McClatchy] administrators did not support students who participated in this particular walkout perhaps indicates an unwillingness to take partial responsibility for the lack of resources and guidance that sexual assault victims on campus have experienced after coming forward about their stories,” Fitzgerald wrote.

A district spokesman said the real difference was that administrators only learned about the sexual violence walkout less than a day before, through word of mouth.

“That was not enough time to engage in the same kind of planning and preparation as the previous walkout,” said Alex Barrios, the chief communications officer for SCUSD, in an email.