Harris touts state approach to truancy
Feb. 3, 2010
By ELISE VIEBECK
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, who is running for state attorney general, called yesterday for a statewide approach to school truancy — an idea that has conservatives worried about local control issues and civil libertarians fearful of its implications for student privacy and homeschooling.
Harris’ comments came at a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing on the role of law enforcement in truancy prevention. The hearing focused on chronic truancy, defined as absence for more than 10 percent of a school term, and its relationship to juvenile delinquency. San Bernardino and Sacramento law enforcement, as well as the San Francisco school district, were also represented on the speakers’ panel.
Harris appeared in Sacramento just hours before prospective attorney general candidate Rep. Jackie Speier surprised race hounds with her decision to seek reelection to the House. A Field Poll last week showed the undeclared Speier, expected to be the Democratic front-runner for AG, leading Harris by 18 points. Her decision not to run leaves a crowded and competitive Democratic field, with Harris maintaining a narrow edge over Assemblyman Ted Lieu, former LA City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, and four other candidates.
Experts say that truancy prevention as a project of local law enforcement has become more frequent over the last 10 years. Organizations like Fight Crime, Invest in Kids enjoy bipartisan support and thrive in communities of diverse political makeup throughout the state.
According to yesterday’s testimony, local truancy-prevention initiatives arise as a response by local law enforcement to research showing that truancy, even at the elementary school level, correlates with criminal activity later in life.
Harris’ approach to truancy in San Francisco has been controversial. It includes a mediation program for parents of chronic truants, and in extreme cases, misdemeanor prosecution for those parents, with sentences of up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500. Many attribute the reported 20-percent drop in absenteeism among San Francisco elementary school students to this hard-line approach, though experts say the substantive effect on city crime rates will be hard to measure.
In yesterday’s hearing, Harris suggested a state-wide system for uniform attendance data collection to help officials “flag issues” early. San Francisco premiered a system for real-time truancy tracking last year, known as Data Director.
“This is a natural progression of the work we’ve been doing,” Harris told CalWatchdog. “We want to look at the data, determine the problems, and try to fix them in the best way we can.”
The idea of monitoring truancy at the state level, however, is a partisan breaking point.
In response to Harris’ suggestion, state senator Tom Harman, who is the leading Republican candidate for Attorney General, released the following statement from his legislative office:
“Truancy and its impact on crime is clearly an important issue that warrants the immediate attention of parents, school districts and local law enforcement. What I wonder is how creating another statewide bureaucracy to monitor it will keep kids in school. I don’t think the state is in any position to create yet another new program – especially regarding an issue traditionally handled by locals.”
Republican members of the Public Safety Committee, as well as the other candidates for attorney general, could not be reached for comment.
School districts already report average daily attendance statistics to the state, which helps to determine the amount of funding they receive. Under a statewide truancy-prevention initiative, districts could be compelled to track and report different types of absences for the first time.
With the current budget crisis, however, the implementation of such a system is unlikely.
“Everyone realizes there is is no money to be had to matter what,” says David Kopperud, who chairs the state school attendance review board in Sacramento. “We may see everyone satisfied with incremental changes in the related statues.”
According to yesterday’s hearing, those changes could include a redefinition of truancy in the state code to distinguish between chronic and minor cases. Changes could also, says Kopperud, amend ambiguous statues that lead local judges to apply a misdemeanor charge—“contributing to the delinquency of a minor”—to parents of chronic truants, instead of a smaller education code infraction that, in many cases, could be more appropriate.
To home-schoolers, who may be concerned about the implications of truancy code amendments, Kopperud said not to worry.
“They’re not the target; chronic truants are. If you’re teaching your children at home, we’re not concerned. You won’t be covered in the same blanket.”
Karen England, Executive Director for Capitol Resource Institute, responded that she fears increasing daytime curfews.
“The cops already know who the truant kids are. Increasing daytime curfews punishes home-schooled children and even kids who attend private schools with different schedules,” she said.
The Senate Public Safety Committee meets every first and third Tuesday at 9:30 am. The Democratic primary for state attorney general is scheduled for June 8.
More on the truancy hearing …
By KATY GRIMES
An issue usually addressed on a local level by schools, school districts, local law enforcement, and parents the Senate Public Safety committee heard testimony from law enforcement on Tuesday regarding elementary school truancy, and is now considering tackling this issue on a state level.
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, San Bernardino District Attorney Michael Ramos, City of Sacramento Police Chief Rick Brazil, and San Francisco School District Superintendant Carlos Garcia appeared in a panel to testify to the elementary school truancy issues they deal with, the connection to crime and the future outlook of children who are chronically truant, as early as elementary school.
AG candidate Harris testified that in San Francisco, her department has stepped up the prosecutions of parents of chronically truant children, thereby improving attendance in San Francisco schools by 20 percent. She said that even the threat of prosecution sometimes facilitates a coordination of social services and law enforcement, gaining the parents much needed help for substance abuse problems, parenting classes and even babysitting. Few parents are actually fully prosecuted, according to Harris.
Harris said that when elementary students are chronically truant, they become juvenile delinquents, gang involved, abuse drugs and alcohol, and usually make up the bulk of high school dropouts, if they make it even that far. According to Harris, 70 percent of high school dropouts and 94 percent of homicide victims under the age of twenty-five were elementary school truants.
Harris recommended amending the state code definition of truancy because of the need for a distinction in the current state law of “three unexcused absences,” to addressing the reality of the 50 to 80 unexcused absences they see by many elementary school children. Harris explained, “there is a big difference between three and 50 unexcused absences; we need to treat this as an emergency response.”
“The goal is not the prosecution of parents; it’s to get kids in school. They will be a burden to a lot of people if we don’t take this issue on,” added Harris.
However, expanding state involvement and oversight as the goal became clear Harris said that “school is where we learn that little Johnny can’t hear and Sally can’t see and needs glasses, or kids are abused. For kids who need help, it’s school where we find this out.”
Sacramento Police Chief Brazil said his department created truancy drop-off locations called “Attendance Centers” in three locations in Sacramento. By getting truant school kids off of the street, Brazil said “the Sacramento Police Department has documented a 39 percent drop in crime in the immediate neighborhoods surrounding city schools” and even saw a 64 percent drop in the area surrounding one city school.
Last year, 1,200 Sacramento truant school children and their families were assisted by the attendance centers, according to Brazil.
Keeping kids engaged in school should be the goal, according to Brazil. “Not all kids go to college, or want to go to college, or should go to college,” said Brazil. He added that budget cuts always cut the vocational programs for the kids who don’t go to college, but “we need to help these kids too.”
Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, agreed with Brazil about vocational programs. Wright said that in his district, “only 15 to 20 percent of the kids go to college” and “the current system disenfranchises 80 percent of them and calls them failures.” Wright continued and said that every low performing school has two characteristics in lower performance and poor attendance rates.
Carlos Garcia, superintendant for the San Francisco Unified School District, explained “even with the referrals to Child Protective Services in San Francisco, not much happened until District Attorney Kamala Harris got involved,” critical of the lack of results by Social Services. “Academic standards sound great,” continued Garcia, “but California has only 13 years to teach what should take 20 years,” explaining that California’s standards sound good on paper, but educations experts defy the relevance of the standards when the state is not addressing the reality of the family life schools are faced with every day.
No one appeared in opposition to the panel’s presentation. However, Karen England, executive director for Capitol Resource Institute said,”This is a parental rights issue, and about state funding and grants for attendance.” She is suspicious of any increase in state involvement on an issue that she says should be dealt with exclusively by parents and schools.
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