Getting African-American Children Back in School Before It’s Too Late

Kamala Harris with studentsAs we close out Black History month, I wanted to share this article I wrote for the L.A. Watts Times.  Our office has been working very hard to ensure that truant students return to school. Truant students become dropout students, who become future crime victims and crime perpetrators. Cutting this cycle off early can really make a difference.  For more information about my campaign to be California’s first African-American Attorney General, please see You can also support us on Facebook.

Many of the landmark battles of our Civil Rights Movement hinged on the right to an education. We all remember the images – the Little Rock Nine escorted to school by federal troops, or a deadly firefight between U.S. Marshals, soldiers and rioting segregationists intent on blocking James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi.

Adults and children lost their lives so that African American students could enter America’s school houses. Under the law, our battle was won. But today, in many respects, we are losing the war.

African American children are dropping out of school at alarming rates, with nearly half failing to finish high school. The pattern starts young and begins with chronic school absences. Many urban school districts across the country report that literally thousands of students are absent without an excuse each day. Often, more than 40 percent of these missing students are in elementary school.

In San Francisco, African Americans make up just 11 percent of the public school population, but account for nearly 40 percent of truant students. A study of African American third-graders in Philadelphia revealed that 39 percent had missed 25 days or more compared to 19 percent of white students. Nearly 60 percent of the children at the Minneapolis Truancy Center are African American, while they comprise a little more than 30 percent of the total student population.

So what does it mean that so many of our young African American children are not in school? It means they fall behind, and they fall through the cracks. Elementary school children who skip class today become tomorrow’s high school truants, juvenile delinquents and dropouts. Dropouts are those most likely to have poor health, be unemployed or work at low-paying jobs, and are more likely to end up on the streets as victims or perpetrators of crime.

The statistics speak volumes. In California, three-fourths of prison inmates are high school dropouts. In San Francisco, more than 94 percent of all homicide victims under the age of 25 are high school dropouts.

When it comes to giving our children a chance, we can either pay attention to the signs of trouble now, or we can pay the price later. The early signs of trouble are clear.

In 2007, the National Center for Children in Poverty issued a study finding that elementary school children who miss 10 percent or more days in a given school year are the most likely to have lower academic performance and risk permanently falling behind in subsequent school years. I believe that 10 percent or more is a “tipping point.”

Children who miss less than 10 percent have a chance to recover, while children who miss more than 10 percent begin to permanently fall off.

As a community, we need to do everything possible to identify children who have reached the tipping point and demand action to get these children back on track. We cannot afford to simply wring our hands. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and do the work necessary to make sure our children get to school and get the education they deserve – the education for which those who came before us fought and died.

After I was elected district attorney for San Francisco, I learned that 44 percent of the truant students were in elementary school. I decided to partner with the San Francisco Unified School District to combat elementary school truancy. Every fall, I sent a letter to all parents informing them that truancy is against the law and that I will enforce the law.

During the school year, prosecutors from my office hold mediations with parents and truant students at schools to equip them with services to improve their children’s attendance.

In most cases, attendance improves. But when it doesn’t, my office prosecutes parents in a specialized Truancy Court that combines court monitoring with tailored family services. We have service providers on hand to help resolve underlying issues such as unstable housing, substance abuse, mental health issues or unresolved special education needs.

Our strategy has worked. In the last year alone, truancy among elementary school students in San Francisco dropped by 20 percent.

The students in our Truancy Initiative are getting needed services, and they are back in school. While we ultimately don’t know what these young students will choose to do with their lives, we do know that now they have a chance.

It is up to us to get our children in school. We know what happens when they are not there. Let’s call on our locally- and state-elected leaders to recognize that the children in a community should be thought of as the children of us all.

We must recognize the tipping point and intervene early – before it’s too late.

Kamala Harris is the district attorney of San Francisco, and is making a bid to be California attorney general.