California Parents Could Get Jail Time if Kids Miss School

Critics argue black and brown families will be hit hardest.

By Julianne Hing Oct 05, 2010

Last Thursday California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 1317, a new statewide anti-truancy bill that officials hope will curb chronic absenteeism in elementary and middle school students. The new law will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2011, and allow state officials to prosecute parents when their kids don’t show up to school.

The initiative was pushed by California attorney general hopeful Kamala Harris, a rising star in the Democratic Party who "Today" show host Matt Lauer dubbed "the female Obama." Harris has smartly tied crime rates with dropout rates; the correlation between kids’ educational achievement and the rate of their criminal convictions is direct. And yet the solutions are alarmingly punitive.

Parents whose kids miss any more than 10 percent of their classes can be charged with a misdemeanor and slammed with a $2,000 fine or a yearlong jail sentence if, after being offered state support and counseling, their kids still fail to improve their attendance. Before SB 1317, parents could be prosecuted under a child endangerment statute. Now kids’ absenteeism has become a crime all its own. The state labels a student as truant if they have more than three unexcused absences in one school year on their record.

As the district attorney of San Francisco, Harris has pushed anti-truancy measures that criminalized parents for years, and said that her anti-truancy programs were responsible for reducing the truancy rate in the city by 23 percent.

Back in 2009, Harris touted one of her success stories in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle:

To date, I have prosecuted 20 parents of young children for truancy. The penalty for truancy charged as a misdemeanor is a fine of up to $2,500 or up to a year of jail. Our groundbreaking strategy has worked. After Michael’s parents did not respond to repeated pleas from the school district to get him in class, my investigators served his parents with criminal complaints. His parents appeared in court and agreed to work to get needed services and get Michael back in school. Michael missed only three days the following school year. He got extra attention from teachers to get on track and one parent has even become a school volunteer.

While on the surface, anti-truancy programs have a great ring to them–Harris has adopted the phrase "smart on crime" as her tagline–there’s another side to anti-truancy programs. Last year ColorLines covered anti-truancy programs in Los Angeles Unified School District that mandated $250 tickets be handed out to students who were late to school. Once they’d received a citation, students had to show up in court accompanied by their parents on a school day to either pay the fine or plead their case. Every subsequent offense led to more expensive tickets and more serious punishments. LA parents were warned that they could lose their public benefits if their students didn’t show up to school on time, and the harsh policy has ended up creating truants instead of curbing truancy.

It was black and Latino youth who were more likely to get caught up in the system–it’s also black and Latino youth who are more likely to be poor, more likely to depend on unreliable public transit to get to school and more likely to have younger siblings to take care of and family responsibilities to tend.

Youth advocates said that in their experience, the more interaction students had with law enforcement, the more likely they were to eventually drop out. They said that anti-truancy programs didn’t necessarily improve attendance like Harris says, but rather that students whose families were hit with anti-truancy punishments actually ended up just distrusting law enforcement officers more.

Harris has been unable to move her stubbornly static poll numbers all summer long, but on Monday one poll put her ahead of her Republican opponent Steve Cooley by a margin of three points.