California considers bill to punish parents for children’s truancy

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A bill moving through California’s legislature would make truancy a criminal offense — for parents. As KPCC’s Julie Small reports, the law also includes more positive incentives for counties to help parents get their kids back in school.

If the bill becomes law, parents of chronically truant elementary school children could face a year in jail or a $2,000 fine.

"These children will invariably be what will end up in our criminal justice system," San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris testified.

Harris, who sponsored the legislation, told legislators that elementary school truants usually become high school dropouts – and face worse problems.

"A few years ago we did an assessment," Harris said. "I asked someone to figure out for me who were our homicide victims who were under the age of 25. Ninety-four percent, it turns out, were high school dropouts."

Harris also emphasized that three quarters of California’s inmates are high school dropouts.

A few years ago, the district attorney launched a truancy reduction initiative in San Francisco. She says it’s pretty successful. Harris, who’s running for state attorney general in this year’s election, says she wants specific tools to punish parents who allow their kids to ditch school. But she also wants to help them.

"The idea is not to send a parent to jail," agreed Senator Mark Leno (D-SF). Leno says the real point of his bill is to compel counties to reduce truancy. "We want to bring all the stakeholders to the table to deal with the problems the family is dealing with."

The bill would require schools to show that they’ve notified and counseled a truant student’s parents over a period of time – to no avail.

Courts could defer judgment if the parent agrees to get additional counseling, help with drug or alcohol addiction, or take parenting classes.

Counties would also be required to assist families with housing and childcare, if necessary, to get children back in school.