Madera County Historical Society
The old Webster School may look empty in this photo, but J.E. Rea, the county’s first truant officer, made sure that all of the kids in the district were in their places when the bell rang.
The arrival of New Years in 1920 brought a pivotal change in Madera County’s schools. For almost 30 years, school attendance had been left pretty much up to each individual family. Most of them sent their kids to school, but a sizable minority kept them home so that they could work. That’s why the county hired its first truant officer that year to enforce the new school attendance law. They paid him $125 per week to get all the children between 5 and 16 in school.
After some initial wrangling between the Board of Supervisors and the Superintendent of Schools, Jonathon Rea, formerly the town’s marshal, got the job. The supervisors could not have made a better pick to crack down on truancy in Madera County. At the outset, Rea promised that he would fill the schools up.
“If you think the schools are crowded now, just wait until I have been on the Job a week or so. If I don’t dig up more children than you ever dreamed of, I’ll miss my guess,” the new truant officer boasted, and he was as good as his word.
On his first day on the job, Rea found two children in the southern part of town, a boy 12 years old and a girl 9, who had not been to school at all that year. They were ordered to begin school at once, and by the next morning they reported as ordered.
The next day, Truant Officer Rea found 11 kids residing in the vicinity of the lumber mill who were not attending school. Four were in one family. They all promised to start school on Monday morning.
Rea announced that he was just beginning. Before he was through, Madera would have to build more schools to accommodate the truants who would be returning. With that he went out and bought a new Ford automobile in which he could travel over the county to perform his sworn duties.
After a month on the job, Rea found that a large number of kids were being kept out of school so that they could help their families by working. On Feb. 25, he found two boys in the country, one driving a tractor and the other plowing. One was just shy of 16, and the other was only a few days behind him. They were delivered to W. L. Williams, Principal of Lincoln School, although both boys announced their intention to will quit school just as soon as they turned 16. A nonplussed Rea told them that he would, nevertheless, see that they remained in school until that time.
Officer Rea also found one boy who was not going to school because he had been expelled for one week on account of misconduct. He was taking advantage of that fact by remaining out for a longer period. Needless to say, the young fellow found himself back at his desk again in short order.
In March, Rea ran across a mother who was keeping her 15-year-old daughter beyond the reach of the truant officer by sending her to cook for two men in a lonely camp some 15 miles away. Rea arrested the mother and hauled her before the district attorney. When she was threatened with prosecution she finally consented to obey the law.
By April, Rea was in the mountains near Raymond. He had heard that a Russian couple had been keeping their 14-year-old son out of school so that he could work in the granite quarries. Rea found where the lad lived but only the mother was at home, and she wasn’t talking. When Rea remonstrated with her, she flew into a rage, calling the officer some choice names and lied to him saying that the law couldn’t touch her son since he was already 16-years-old. She finally slammed the door in his face.
It’s a good thing she’s a woman, Rea grumbled to himself as he walked away.
For a while Rea was stumped, but then he checked the records at the school house in Raymond and found the boy’s true age. When Rea found the father, he informed him that either the boy would be in school the next day, or the father would be in jail. The man promised to have his son in school on Monday.
And so it went with Madera County’s first truant officer. J.E. Rea continued to round up the absentees as rapidly as he could find them, and he wasn’t very cordial with the parents who were violating the new law. It was school for the kids or jail for the parents, and it wasn’t all talk. Jonathon Rea was as good as his word.