It’s time to hold parents accountable

More than 5,400 public school students in San Francisco failed to show up for school at least 10 times last school year, with no note and no phone call. It’s not a new problem, of course — truancy has been around as long as there have been schools, and it occupies a somewhat nostalgic place in the American imagination, often given the harmless or even fun-sounding monikers of “cutting class” or “playing hooky.”

But at the level of what state education officials call “habitual” or “chronic” truancy — meaning 10 or more unexplained absences per school year in the first case and more than 20 absences in the second — we are not talking about a harmless, temporary escape from daily academic rigors. Many studies have shown that kids who cut class often tend to have poor academic records, get into more trouble and engage in criminal activity in greater numbers than students who attend school regularly.

District Attorney Kamala Harris, understanding that today’s truants are far more likely to become tomorrow’s criminals, is going to do something about it — she is preparing to prosecute parents whose kids are blithely ditching school over and over again.

We support Harris’ effort. Some parents are sure to complain that it is impossible to know for certain whether their kids are goingto school when they leave the house in the morning, rather than to a friend’s house, a video arcade or a street corner. Any parent who has struggled to raise a recalcitrant teenager will have some sympathy for that argument.

But how then to explain the fact that nearly 600 of the chronic truants — those worst offenders who don’t show up 20 times or more during a school year — are in the range of kindergarten to fourth grade? Clearly, in many of those cases, the parent is making little effort to ensure that the child is attending class regularly. It is those kids’ parents whom Harris says she plans to crack down on.

The prosecution of those parents would not just be a slap on the wrist. Harris is looking at state law that holds a parent responsible for contributing to the delinquency of a minor if the child isn’t showing up to school. The misdemeanor charge carries with it a sentence of up to one year in jail and a fine of $2,500.

The school district has instituted some anti-truancy programs in recent years, but those effects so far have not put much of a dent in the problem. Holding the parents accountable sends the message that we as a city care enough about kids to make guiding them properly a top priority.

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