Kamala Harris, Truancy and the Fauxgressive Left's Desperate Attempt to Criminalize School Attendance

“Kamala is a cop.”

Since it’s been speculated that Kamala Harris, US Senator from California badass Trump-nominee-squirm-causer, might run for president, we’ve been hearing the above over and over again from a particular corner of the “left” media and intelligentsia. Since she declared she was running for president a week and a day ago in front of a 20,000+ crowd in Oakland, California (with overflow crowds everywhere), the pushers of this insidious line have gone into high gear. In what they believe is their silver bullet against Harris’ candidacy, they are targeting an anti-truancy program she led when she served as the District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco.

It’s pretty ridiculous, when you think about it, why anyone - least of all anyone claiming to be a liberal - would oppose a program mainly centered around community resources for parents to bring kids back to school and keep them off the streets. I quite suspect Kamala Harris’ failure to be an underachiving, 40-year career politician, septuagenarian Caucasian male from a 93% white, rural state has something to do with this.

In my view, there are three parts that make up this attack’s appeal: (1) the reinforcement of Harris being a law enforcement officer (a “cop”) and of law enforcement being evil, (2) the idea that truancy enforcement is bad for poor people and communities of color, and (3) a callous disregard for the wellbeing and safety of children.

But for any of it to be properly explored, we need to know a little about the history of Harris’ anti-truancy program when she served as the DA for the city and county of San Francisco.

The partnership between the San Francisco DA’s office and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) began when Harris was the district attorney, in 2006. Contrary to commonly disseminated misinformation, the program is not predominantly a law enforcement or punitive one. The actual initiative would only refer parents for action in truancy court if numerous attempts by the school and social services agencies to get a child back to school fails. This chart from the SFUSD describes the process:

As you can see, a case wouldn’t even be referred to the DA’s office until school officials and community resources had followed up, followed up again and again, and only after, at the end of the process, the review board is unable to get compliance for 30 days (the whole process, obviously, would take a lot longer).

Harris’ initiative expanded this process to include social services agencies like the Center for Academic Re-Enrollment, Department of Public Health, the YMCA, and other government and community programs. Parents would not be referred to the DA’s office until those options had been exhausted by the school district and its non-law-enforcement partners. The DA’s office did participate in information sessions for parents to make them aware of the resources available to them. Having the DA’s seal no doubt got attention of many parents and made them attend these informative sessions that they may not otherwise have.

In 2011 - after Harris left the DA’s office - the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Family Services (not an agency controlled by the District Attorney) produced a report showing in the preceding five years under the program, chronic truancy or unexcused absences had dropped in San Francisco by 37% (in actual numbers), while truancy in the state of California actually went up.

Through the entire time of Harris’ career as the San Francisco District Attorney, she took a few cases to the truancy court, and in every case, attendance improved. Not even one parent was fined or jailed (which would be allowed under California law). As Harris has said, the goal of her anti-truancy program was to get kids back to school and off the streets without sending parents to jail, and by all objective measures, she succeeded.

The program’s very success may be a threat to those who are looking to vilify all law enforcement. The anti-truancy program that Harris helped run was humane, depended primarily on investments in community resources, and was effective without actually having to imprison anyone. But admitting that law enforcement can be - and has been - a force for good in a community, that law enforcement can work - and has worked - hand in glove with schools and community resources to have a positive impact on getting kids back to school and off the streets is antithetical to the demonization the very profession of law enforcement and tarring and feathering anyone in it with that paintbrush.

If you admit that, you may have to face the complex world where law enforcement is often a force for good and yet the criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. You may have to admit that giving people of color a seat at the table and the power to make decisions often improves the system rather than getting those individuals sucked into a system that is still in many instances whitewashed. And if you admit all that, you might have to admit your own responsibility to improve things in your community rather than just tweeting angry rants.

How frightening.

Having to admit that Harris’ truancy program made a real difference also means having to admit that its primary beneficiaries were people of color and poor people. It is predominantly their children that were returned to school by this process. 40% of homicides in San Francisco claim victims under 25. And 94% of those victims are dropouts. Truancy is directly and inseparably related not simply to kids losing hope and ending up with bad influence or a criminal life, truancy leads these kids to often become victims of crime. Truancy is not just a public safety issue because kids out of school fall into committing crimes, it is a public safety issue far more because these kids end up the victims.

Some more timid responses to Harris’ approach have been that these parents are stressed enough already, and do not need more of it through a truancy court. While no one disagrees that these parents don’t need more stress, parenting is a stressful job. And there is no stress worse than having a knock on your door at 2 am by officers bearing the news that your kid is dead. The anti-truancy program in San Francisco was - and is - geared to provide these parents the resources they need. But it is also true that in a small fraction of cases, it does take the stick of a DA involvement in order to get some of these parents to the table (like when these parents are themselves victims of truancy and have lost trust that anyone in the school system will help them) to avail themselves to the ‘carrot’ of services that are offered. And it is only that tiny fraction that ever sees the inside of a truancy court. The belief that no parent would ever need a stick to get them to the table is dangerously naive.

What Kamala Harris did worked. It got kids back to school, reduced truancy, and did so without jailing, fining or arresting any parents. She was smart about it, pairing the gravity that a DA’s signature underlines with the community and government resources families need. She used her office, and her knowledge, and her influence of the law to help people, to reduce truancy.

By attacking Kamala Harris for this program, her detractors are not advocating for criminal justice reform, or even standing up for the real victims of the criminal justice system. They are, instead, undermining a shining model of what can be a true community-law enforcement partnership, and they are, deplorably, criminalizing school attendance.

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