Why prosecute parents of chronically truant students? 

Joe did not show up for school last Monday. And he didn’t show up Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday. No one from his family called to say he was going to be out. Joe is only 8 years old. Yet in the first few weeks of the school year, he simply did not show up to school more than a dozen times.

An 8-year-old cannot be solely responsible for his own absences. The larger problem is he is just one of 5,449 San Francisco students in the 2007-08 school year who were either chronically or habitually truant. Most surprisingly, 44 percent of those truants were elementary school students — so Joe’s story is all too common.

Despite his youth, Joe’s truancy makes him far more likely to be arrested or fall victim to a crime. A staggering 75 percent of our nation’s incarcerated criminals were habitual truants. And during the last four years, 94 percent of San Francisco’s homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school dropouts.

Truancy is a national crisis. Every single day in Pittsburgh, about 3,500 students, 12 percent of the student body, are absent from school. Milwaukee averages 4,000 unexcused absences each day. San Francisco has one of the highest truancy rates in California — more than Alameda, Los Angeles and Contra Costa counties. That’s why here in San Francisco and neighboring counties, we are taking a new approach, and it’s starting to yield positive results that can change the odds for our children.

Combating truancy is a smart approach to crime prevention. As the city’s chief prosecutor, I sent every parent of a San Francisco Unified School District student a letter at the beginning of the 2007-08 school year explaining that I was prepared to prosecute parents if they broke the law by keeping their children out of school. I was surprised to discover that many parents and guardians didn’t know California law makes education mandatory for children under the age of 18. Hundreds of parents attended informational meetings on truancy after receiving the letter, and the school district and my office fielded thousands of calls from parents and guardians who had questions or needed help.

School district officials along with prosecutors held numerous face-to-face meetings, made phone calls, sent repeated letters home and offered help to parents. Since January, we’ve held 11 mediations at 13 schools involving more than 1,750 parents and guardians whose children were chronically or habitually absent. We also held 75 one-on-one conferences with parents.

Early results indicate that truancy is falling. At Sanchez Elementary School, after our first mediation, the number of chronic truants shrank from 20 to five (a 75 percent drop). At Mission High School, overall attendance improved 40 percent among the 100 truant students in our mediation.

While we made some significant progress through these efforts, some parents still failed to get their children to school. I chose to file criminal charges against six parents whose children, as young as 6 years old, had missed as many as 80 days out of a 180-day school year. Those parents are now reporting to a model Truancy Court we created with the Superior Court that uses a combination of consequences and support services to make sure those parents keep their children in school.

Some may ask, “Why is the district attorney concerned with the problem of truancy?” The answer is that truancy and crime are directly linked. Children who start as chronic truants too often are the ones who wind up dropping out of school and then getting arrested or becoming a victim of crime.

I strongly believe the criminal justice system needs to dedicate itself to improving the odds for kids before they choose the wrong path in life. Let’s change the odds in our children’s favor by working with parents and communities to significantly cut truancy in our schools.

Kamala Harris is the district attorney of San Francisco.

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