By L.A. Watts Times News Service
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has made a clear connection between the San Francisco dropout and murder rates: truancy. According to recent statistics, ninety-four percent of the city’s murder victims under the age of 25 are dropouts.
Chronic elementary school truancy is a widespread problem in California. Nearly 40 percent of the truant students in California are in elementary school. Children as young as six are missing sometimes more than half of the school year.
Four years ago, DA Harris convened a meeting with all of the City’s principals and school administrators. There, she shared the linkage between truancy and murder rates and said that San Francisco could do better. She then announced that her office intended to prosecute parents for truancy. Half of the room applauded while the other half was visibly upset, concerned that law enforcement cannot solve what is often a complicated social problem.
Despite the controversy, District Attorney Harris and her team forged ahead, recognizing that inaction was tantamount to complicity. They developed what has become a three-phase approach to truancy reduction. First, DA Harris’ team engages in widespread public education and intensive early intervention for families showing signs of trouble. In the majority of cases, attendance improves. But when it does not, the DA’s office prosecutes parents in a specialized Truancy Court that combines close court monitoring with tailored family services. Parents face the threat of a fine or jail time but there are also social services on hand to help resolve underlying issues such as transportation, unstable housing, substance abuse, neglect or special education needs.
DA Harris’ “carrot and stick” strategy has worked. In the last two years, elementary school truancy has dropped by 33 percent.
DA Harris has addressed critics who suggest that law enforcement should not be concerned about truancy, claiming it’s a social issue, not a public safety problem. She has said when it comes to breaking the cycle of crime, we can either pay attention to the signs of trouble now, or we can pay the price later. And, we pay that price in more ways than one. Elementary school children who are chronically absent from school today become the high school dropouts of tomorrow. High school dropouts are disproportionately likely to end up in the criminal justice system as either victims or perpetrators of crime, or both.
DA Harris’ philosophy is that as a state, if we are serious about changing the factors that lead to crime, we need to get serious about getting and keeping our young children in school.
Read more about Kamala Harris at HYPERLINK “http://www.kamalaharris.org” www.kamalaharris.org.