School-Truancy Prosecutions May Further Strain Public Defender

By Matt Baume
|  Monday, Aug 16, 2010  |  Updated 12:30 PM PDT
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School-Truancy Prosecutions May Further Strain Public Defender

Did you know that on average, a foster child will live in at least seven different homes before they turn 18 years old.

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Are you seeing your kids off today to their first day of the school year? You might want to double-check to make sure they're going, lest you be hauled into court.

Under a new program, the District Attorney (and state Attorney General candidate) Kamala Harris plans to pursue about 300 truant kids. Their skipping school puts them at risk for criminal activity, she says, and she's upped the ante by forcing parents to get involved. When moms and dads are prosecuted for their kids' failure to attend class, the DA's office claims that attendance improves by 33 percent. That amounts to 4,500 classroom hours.

Penalties for parents are steep at $2,000 fines or even time in jail.

Few cities have taken this approach, so San Francisco's seen as somewhat of a laboratory. A consultant on the project told the Bay Citizen that he expected the program only to target the most extreme violators.

So far, elected officials are claiming success. Mayor Gavin Newsom recently trumpeted his new SF Truancy Assessment and Resource Center, which he says will serve as a one-stop location where truant youth can be reconnected with school and an array of community services.

"Success in school starts with being in school. Those students who are struggling academically are often our students who miss the most days of school," said Superintendent Carlos Garcia. "The Mayor and the DA are showing the kind of leadership we need if we are going to address the achievement gap that continues to afflict our most vulnerable youth in San Francisco."

It remains to be seen what impact this program will have on the budget of the Public Defender's office, which has ballooned in recent years due to shortstaffing and outsourcing.

Meanwhile, students in some districts may have good reason for skipping class. Cutbacks in Healdsberg have nearly emptied the school of its resources, leaving teachers with a diminished capacity for teaching.

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