TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) -- The Nogales Unified School District is taking a drastic step to stop excessive absences. Parents could now face criminal charges.
How bad is the problem? More than 40 percent of kindergartners missed 18 or more days last school year -- the highest rate in the country.
It's not your grandparents or even parents kindergarten. Kindergarten is the new first grade. It used to be developmental and social, but now students are reading, writing, and adding by the end of the school year.
Teachers say it's much too difficult to play catch-up when kids miss too much school. "This is in kindergarten now. What's going to happen when they get to first grade.They're not going to make it. And the first grade teachers. They're going to send them back," said Kindergarten teacher Julie Ulrich,
At Mary Welty Elementary, an eighth of the kindergarteners -- 10 out of 80 -- were held back last year largely due to absences -- excused or unexcused.
Principal Aissa Bonillas says her school is not alone. The district felt the message that truancy is a violation of state law is not sticking with some parents. "Sometimes it's a family problem or out of town. And those things are not excused," she said.
"I had a child out for a week. Why? Because his mother had a baby. His mother had the baby, he didn't," said Ulrich.
So the district is resorting to punitive measures -- misdemeanor truancy charges -- in cases of negligence to hold parents accountable for chronic absences. "It's definitely a warning. But not only a warning, we need help. We need to get the kids here," said Bonillas.
Cynthia Hernandez, a single mother of 5, is shocked by the move. She's found it difficult at times to get her kids to school. "It's hard to get shoes, uniforms, school supplies, " she said.
But she doesn't fault the district for taking such a drastic step. "I do somewhat agree because the children should be in school every day. Because it's their success in life," said Hernandez.
Truancy charges are misdemeanors, but parents can be arrested and fined.
And kindergartners aren't the only ones missing too much school. Nearly 20% of first graders, 18% of second graders and 12% of third graders were chronically absent.
KGUN9 checked with other districts. TUSD, Catalina Foothills, Flowing Wells and Marana responded that their absentee rates last school year ranged from 2 to 8 percent.