Fault Lines
25 April 2017

Forty Years of Punitive Policy Finally Undone

February 1, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Amnesty has been a bit of a theme over the last couple of years in California. First the California Courts introduced an amnesty program for people with outstanding traffic tickets that were preventing them from getting their drivers license. It was a one-time deal, possibly brought about by shame over the fact that California Courts were no better than the much-shamed courts of Ferguson, Missouri, with their pay-to-play program that, along with law enforcement, targeted people of color.

Then as reported here at Fault Lines, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite, amid much criticism, vacated more than 64,000 quality of life tickets. The latest in the amnesty trend comes from Santa Clara County in the South San Francisco bay area where the Superior Court and District Attorney got together and vacated 12,000 cases going back as far as 1993. The courts will no longer be hearing juvenile truancy cases and a mediation system will be put in place.

At one point in time, people in California thought it was a good idea to create a special court for truant kids and parents: A place where they could get their own cases and special fines. Kids with unpaid, unresolved truancy cases wouldn’t have to go to jail but would be unable to obtain a drivers license. Parents who “fail to compel” a child to attend school could face jail and up to $2500 in fines. In California, truancy is defined as:

Three unexcused absences and/or

Three tardies and/or

Three absences of more than 30 minutes

That’s a pretty harsh definition given the myriad things that can happen during any given school year. The juvenile record created by truancy could have an effect on a kid’s ability to attend college or find jobs. One look at the Student Attendance Review Board (SARB) Chart and the consequences of being truant makes it clear that the California is complicated and punitive in nature despite their claim that:

Our legislative scheme is geared toward returning the absent student to school, rather than toward punishment or criminal sanctions for children or their parents.

So it’s a very good thing that someone of substance was paying enough attention to realize that the primary effect of these punitive measures was on poor kids and kids of color.

Kids miss school for all sorts of reasons: Family problems, illness, a killer break down by the pier, fear of being bullied and poverty, to name a few. Mostly, the individuals responsible for a kid missing school, especially in the younger years, are the parents or guardian. It boggles the mind that this wasn’t clear 40 years ago when they set up a separate court system to punish kids for being absent. Sure, some kids don’t want to go to school and the reasons are not easily explained.

Back in the mid-1970’s there was no fort building world championship, and therefore you can all be excused for being unaware that I was the reigning fort building champion of the world for several years. To accomplish this, I unfortunately had to sacrifice some school days while my pals and I slipped into the dense Perlacher Forest of McGraw Kaserne, the now former U.S. military base in Munich, Germany. Sometimes kids don’t want to go to school. There are things that have a stronger pull than being locked-up in a classroom, but it doesn’t make them bad kids. Punishing kids for things like this just makes it worse.

Now Santa Clara County wants to have a mediation and mitigation program. It’s unclear exactly what that will entail at this point, but they might do well to consult Mel Atkins, a teacher and principal in Gran Rapids Michigan who created a program to combat what he calls “chronic absenteeism.” It takes a communitywide effort starting with the schools themselves and engaging community leaders, mentors and parents in a concerted effort.

As it turns out, parents don’t always realize how many days their kids are absent from school purely as a result of parents. Not truancy at all; just parents. Cyndy Bulson, one grandmother who was responsible for getting her grandkids to school sums it up:

I really didn’t even know that there were problems with the attendance, It was one day here, one day there, and all of a sudden it was like, boom.

Boom! Is the school calling to say your kids have missed 20 days of school this year. This is a phone call not unfamiliar to many parents. How many kids over the last 40 years have been punished by the California truancy law is unclear, but punishing kids for missing school by creating a draconian juvenile truancy scheme that follows them through life is not the way to go.

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