Under a new law working its way through the California legislature this month, parents of K-8 children could go to jail if their kids are chronically absent from school.
SB1317 already sailed through the California Senate with little difficulty. The bill details how the parents of a K-8 child truant 10 percent or more of the school year could be jailed for up to one year and fined $2,000 if they ignore repeated warnings.
The Problem of Truancy
Measures already exist in parts of California, as they do in other states, to deal with truancy. In the Oakland school district, more than 5,000 children in kindergarten through eighth grade missed at least five full days of school without an excused absence during the past school year. About 2,000 missed 10 days or more, and some of their parents were sent to the truancy court in Alameda County and charged with an infraction.
Senate Bill 1317 jumps this up a notch by making truancy a misdemeanor, at least for the parents of children who have missed 10 percent of the school year. This is not unique to California; many states are moving in this direction, and both Florida and Texas already have similar laws in place. Several months ago, I wrote here about the school board in Nutley, New Jersey, which was planning to adopt a policy that would charge parents for detention, which they estimate costs the district $10,000 a year in overtime and maintenance fees.
Parents in Jail a Good Solution?
But is jail for their parents the right solution for truant children? The legislation was drafted by Kamala Harris, district attorney for San Francisco and also candidate for California attorney general. Here’s what she has to say:
“I think that everyone realized that for too long, issues that affect children were seen as small issues – maybe because children are small- instead of taking these on as big issues,” Harris said recently. “You know who that chronically truant 6-year-old is going to be? The ‘menace to society’ that everyone will be knocking on our door about, asking me to prosecute.”
Other experts disagree. Adrian Kirk, who directs the Oakland school district office dealing with truant children and their families, believes the bill is too punitive. Sending your child to school is such a basic thing, he said. If a parent is not doing so, they must have serious problems – problems that the threat of punishment is not necessarily going to solve.
Time will tell if punishing parents in this way will cut down on school truancy rates. Meanwhile, the debate is open: is this a great bill that is long overdue, or an example of government intervention that can only make the truancy problem worse?
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