A girl with a pink backpack glanced nervously over her shoulder as a police car rolled up Maricopa Avenue.

She made no eye contact, but Officer Robert Aiavao sees she's headed in the right direction.

"You look for things that are out of place -- a kid who's not at a bus stop, who's not walking toward school," said Aiavao, cruising between Richmond High's most popular spots to cut class on Wednesday.

Regular school-skippers can expect more encounters with officers like Aiavao as the police department ramps up enforcement of Richmond's year-old daytime curfew for minors, which subjects truants to tickets and court dates.

Other cities use daytime curfews to pressure parents to rein in their children. But in Richmond, where scores cut school daily, the legal change really serves to funnel kids to needed social services.

And early returns suggest it helps.

"Simply fining truant kids and their parents does little," Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus said. "The Richmond program attempts to figure out what is going on with these young people and link them to services."

During six months of enforcement last school year, officers in Richmond issued 229 tickets, 21 to repeat offenders -- only 9 percent. The precise truancy rate is unclear because West Contra Costa school district administrators provide no such data to the police department. The district also did not respond to requests for information from this newspaper.

Police plan to stop anyone out during school hours who looks under 18, just to check. In the past, police took students caught out of school back to campus. Officers rarely tracked what became of them.

Students with no good excuse now get a ride to the Richmond Police Activities League, which now doubles as a receiving center during weekdays.

There, while they wait for an adult to arrive, counselors talk and officers write tickets, requiring the kids and their parents to appear in court.

The judge could levy a fine as high as $500 for repeat offenses, but typically does not. Instead, the family gets a plan for improving attendance and dealing with intruding personal issues.

That usually fixes the problem.

"The average kid cuts because they have a couple bucks in their pocket, and they want some chips from the store down the street," said RPAL Director Larry Lewis, also a police corporal. "It's a chance to do something different, to get away for the day."

Richmond, however, offers little safety for minors on unsupervised vacation. The city created the ordinance to address crime during the day, during which minors disproportionately become both victims and suspects.

Kennedy High sophomore Cameron Russell, for example, was fatally shot on his first recorded day of cutting in January 2009. Another truant from Kennedy fired the fatal shotgun round inside an apartment. He remains jailed.

Most youth crime, however, amounts to vandalism, auto burglaries and the like. And while layers of adult supervisors monitor kids on campus, they rarely reach beyond the schoolyard fence.

"They help us be aware of what's happening outside of school," said Kibby Kleinman, an assistant principal at Richmond High.

"It's giving me a set of eyes I've never had before."

Students stream through the corridors of Richmond High School every school day, meeting a radio-toting adult about every 30 feet. Teachers, administrators, counselors, community volunteers, site security and school-resource officers all tend to problems in the halls and classrooms.

But, until recently, nobody claimed jurisdiction at "Blue House," as they call it at Richmond High: A boarded-up property on Maricopa, where last month Aiavao collected a group of kids, including three Helms Middle School students.

The call from RPAL, and sudden requirement to appear in court, often shocks parents. Many, it seems, do not realize that their kids ever cut school.

The court experience, however, often proves a pleasant surprise, said Sgt. Brian Dickerson, who supervises investigation of youth crimes.

Truants usually only face fines or formal court proceedings if they repeatedly violate the curfew.

"Parents seem to be very supportive of the program," Dickerson said. "They like that we care about this."

Back at Richmond High, Aiavao sees incremental improvement daily. Change takes time, however, and plenty of kids remain out of school.

Aiavao points down an empty side street next to Richmond High, at a shuttered foreclosure house that shares a fence with the schoolyard.

Kids hung out inside before he called a city crew to mow the lawn, board the windows and tack a bright sign to the door warning trespassers away.

Here, where the campus ends, Aiavao picks up.

"We get directed to the kids on the fence," he said. "They can fall either way."

Staff writer Robert Salonga contributed to this report. Contact Karl Fischer at kfischer@bayareanewsgroup.com. Contact Shelly Meron at smeron@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Curfew laws at a glance
Concord plans to start its own daytime curfew for students after a truancy sweep later this month.
"Historically, we've been frustrated with the amount of crimes involving youth during school hours," Lt. Garrett Voerge said.
Last school year, four in 10 local students cut school at least once, police say.
"Now there's a remedy," Voerge said. "We want to support the truancy issues that schools are struggling with."
Concord's plan, adopted in July, will bring truants caught by police back to the campus where they belong. Repeat offenders will face fines of $100, $200 or even $500.
Among larger cities in the East Bay, Fremont has used a daytime curfew for several years. Others do without, including Oakland and Antioch.