Stymied when it came to prosecuting crime, Harris turned her attention to trying to prevent it. One of her first targets was an unlikely demographic: elementary school kids and their parents. “We went to the school district,” says Silard, Harris’s then–policy chief, “and they looked back at the records and found that all of these folks, well before dropping out of high school, had been chronically truant.” And not just in high school — the data showed that these students had missed large portions of elementary school.
Here was a problem that felt more solvable than convincing gang members to testify against one another. Harris decided to try to stop young people from joining gangs and committing crimes in the first place. She and Silard considered their options. Their initial conversations with the San Francisco school district were not productive. “My opinion, frankly, is that for some people within the education systems, not having to deal with some of these kids is not something they’re sad about,” says Silard, who now runs the Rosenberg Foundation, a racial- and economic-justice organization based in San Francisco. “They’re not necessarily taking big efforts to keep these kids in school.”
At the time, California law contained a civil infraction, akin to a traffic ticket, for parents whose kids missed a certain number of days of school, with a maximum fine of $100 and no jail time. Some counties also charged these parents with a criminal misdemeanor for “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” which carried a fine of up to $2,500 and as much as a year in jail. Harris decided to threaten to enforce these penalties to get foot-dragging parents to pay attention — and to prosecute if they didn’t.
She announced the policy at a meeting in the DA’s office, remembers Keith Choy, who was working as the district’s stay-in-school coordinator. The room was filled with school principals and administrators, school-board members, and representatives from the police and health departments, Choy says. As Harris describes the meeting in her first book, Smart on Crime, the audience “erupted” when she announced her plan — half “sneered and were visibly upset,” while “the other half clapped and cheered out loud.”
“People were pushing back,” Choy confirms. “The big concern was, How can you jail parents and kids for truancy in San Francisco? Nobody ever said it out loud like that. But it was like, Hey, we’re The City. We don’t do that.”
Harris, however, remained committed to the plan. “The idea was not to be punitive,” Silard explains, “but to connect parents to the kind of support they needed to get their kids to school.”
Under the program, parents received a letter on DA letterhead at the beginning of the school year informing them that truancy was a crime and listing the number for a city hotline if they needed help getting their kids to school. Parents were notified when their children had more than 20 unexcused absences. School administrators pulled them into a series of meetings at which they were offered various forms of assistance: busing, child care for other kids, transfers to more-convenient schools. At some of these meetings, an assistant DA would sit in the room, symbolizing the potential for legal consequences. “It was a carrot-and-a-stick meeting,” explains Choy.
In concert with Donna Hitchens, a longtime San Francisco judge who had overhauled the county’s family court, Harris and her team set up a special truancy court for families who did not respond to earlier interventions. Before Hitchens called each case, a social worker would meet with the parents, almost none of whom could afford lawyers. An assistant DA was always present, and hanging over every proceeding was the fact that the city could always attempt to remove the child from the family. Hitchens says that most parents were concerned and embarrassed. “They really wanted their children to be in school,” she says.