Why Kamala Harris Really Prosecuted Parents of Truant Kids

Photo: REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

I was a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner from 2006 to 2009. In 2008 and early 2009, I reported on San Francisco’s public schools, as well as any issues related to kids, families, and the city’s park system. One of the major stories I followed at the time was then-District Attorney Kamala Harris’ prosecution of parents whose children missed a lot of school.

Now that Harris is running for president, people are talking about her approach to truancy in San Francisco public schools again. But over the course of the past 11 years, a lot of the details have been forgotten. I dug through my archives and I’d like to share some of the reporting I did at the time, mostly in the fall and winter of 2008.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating for Harris, nor am I endorsing her. And I’m not passing judgment on prosecuting parents as a way to deal with chronic truancy. But I think it’s valuable to have accurate information out there.

  • Harris’ prosecution of parents was prompted by statistics that show kids with a high rate of truancy go on to become victims of violence — or perpetrators who wind up in the justice system. She wanted to prevent those outcomes, especially given that the most truant kids were often black and brown kids.
  • Harris focused on families whose kids had missed 90 days of school or more.
  • Harris’ office mediated more than 1,000 truancy cases, heading them off before they reached the prosecution stage.
  • In September of 2008, Harris had obtained court orders for six parents to keep their children in school, and five were cooperating.
  • Another handful were referred for prosecution later in 2008.

The number of SFUSD students who missed 10 or more days of school has held steady for the past three years, though it increased slightly to 5,449 in 2007–08, the same year District Attorney Kamala Harris began prosecuting the parents of the worst offenders.

Six parents were given court-mandated instructions to keep their children in school and to get support for the problems contributing to truancy — or face increased penalties, including a $2,500 fine or up to a year of jail time. So far, five of the six families are complying, according to DA spokeswoman Erica Terry Derryck.

“Some may say it seems harsh [to prosecute], but when elementary-school kids are missing 60 days of school, that kid’s life is going to be harsh,” Harris said at a press conference Monday.

Over the past four years, 94 percent of the city’s homicide victims under 25 were high-school dropouts, according to Harris.

In addition, when students don’t attend school, the district loses money. District officials estimate that SFUSD has lost $10 million in state attendance revenue because of truancy.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office is looking at prosecuting a new batch of parents whose children frequently skip school — one piece of a large patchwork of programs aimed at ending chronic truancy.

DA Kamala Harris’ office prosecuted parents in six families last summer after their kids missed more than 50 days of class. In all cases the children have since returned to school, although one had to be placed in foster care to make it happen, Harris told the Examiner.

Since then, another handful of families have failed to keep their kids in school; the DA’s Office is examining their situations closely.

“More cases have been referred to us by the school district, and we’re prepared to prosecute them,” Harris said.

Her attorneys have also mediated more than 1,000 truancy cases before they reached the prosecution stage.

In the 2007–08 school year, 5,449 San Francisco public-school students missed more than 10 days of school. Of those, 2,472 were elementary-school students, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District.

Those numbers have increased slightly from 5,427 in 2005–06 and 5,417 in 2006–07. District officials could not produce new data for the 2008–09 school year.

Harris launched a $20,000 ad campaign in September urging the public to call a hotline if they see kids playing hooky from school. The hotline received just seven calls that month and two in October, according to data provided by the district.

Not every call is going to that hotline, according to Harris.

“Since our ad campaign, we’ve had many anonymous calls — and we’re referring those calls to the district. People are paying more attention, and that’s good,” she said.

Should The City or school district hire truancy officers to round kids up and send them back to school?

I think this is an issue that requires many sectors and agencies to be involved. One of the ways we distribute resources is we say, “This is a priority.” But that doesn’t mean we hire more people.

My focus has been on truancy in elementary and middle school. And when you talk about [those students], we’re not necessarily seeing them on the streets. When you’re talking about a 7-year-old, likely they’re staying at home.

Other cities have used a variety of methods for curbing truancy; which models have you studied, and which ones do you think could work in San Francisco?

We’ve been working with California District Attorney’s association, sharing our method with other counties. In terms of best practices in other counties, they involve very much what we’ve been doing: a court model.

Some jurisdictions have a truancy court … some may prosecute high school kids, but we chose not to focus on that — we’ve been prosecuting parents, not children. I’m not saying prosecuting kids is not the way to go, but I’ve got limited resources. It’s certainly not because we shouldn’t be thinking about high school kids who don’t go to school. But bad habits start early. The kid who is chronically truant in elementary and middle school will be a dropout in high school.

Are there any demographic trends among the cases you handle?

There’s no question there’s a correlation between the population you see as truant; it’s the same as a high school dropout, and who will occupy the county jail and state prison. We’re seeing is a disproportionately high number of African American and Latino youth who are part of that whole trajectory.

Is it something cultural, or are there institutional frameworks in the schools that work against these kids?

It’s not that certain cultures are not interested in education. There’s a connection to poverty, access, support, childcare for younger children, transportation issues.

I always concede that it is legitimate to have a very long conversation about how we can improve public education in our state. But one thing we know for sure is regardless of what you think is the quality of education, if they’re not in school, they’re not getting an education at all.

What will the District Attorney’s office continue to do with respect to truants?

Part of what I hope to do is continue to raise the profile of truancy as one of the direct causes of victimization and crime, and one of the first indicators of who will be a perpetrator of crime. The links are direct between a child going without an education and an adult who is sucking up all our resources in the state prison. People think we should pay attention to kids because they’re cute and cuddly. I pay attention because in 16 years they’re going to be committing crimes against us if we don’t.

Journalist, editor, author, opinionator. Bylines: Guardian, New Yorker, Vice, Mother Jones, Wired. Much more at www.bethwinegarner.com.

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