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The Story Behind Kamala Harris' Truancy Program

Kamala Harris, then California attorney general, speaks to reporters on July 11, 2012.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Kamala Harris, then California attorney general, speaks to reporters on July 11, 2012.

Our latest episode of Code Switch, we took a look at vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris's record as a prosecutor, and how she used her power as San Francisco's district attorney and later, as California's attorney general to shape the criminal justice system.

And of that record, one of the initiatives that has drawn the most attention is the truancy program that she pushed for in the state legislature. Passed in 2011, the law allowed district attorneys to charge parents with a misdemeanor if their children missed 10 percent of the school year without a valid reason.

In 2019, HuffPost reporter Molly Reddenwrote about the families affected by this truancy program, including a Black mother named Cheree Peoples, who was arrested in April of 2013. She came on the show to help explain why this program, which initially launched without much criticism, ended up becoming so controversial, and why it disproportionately affected families of color. Here's the extended cut of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So I guess we should start with Cheree Peoples. Who was she, and how did she get ensnared in this truancy program?

Cheree is a mother in California, and her daughter has a chronic illness. Her name is Shayla, and she has sickle cell anemia, a really painful genetic disease that causes lots of complications. It's pretty typical for people who live with this disability to miss a lot of school if they're children. As her daughter missed a lot of school for valid medical reasons, Cheree and the school were in a dispute about how to accommodate and account for those absences.

She lived in Orange County, which is a fairly conservative, "law and order" type of county. The district attorney there was up for reelection, and he did a big truancy sweep under this law, which Kamala Harris had fought for when she was the D.A. of San Francisco and oversaw its implementation when she was attorney general. There was a big sweep, and one of the parents arrested that morning and perp-walked in front of some cameras was Cheree Peoples.

Take us through this perp walk. What happened?

She was in her house one morning, and the police showed up and handcuffed her. She had time to put on a jacket over her pajamas. And when she was walked by the police out of her apartment where she lived with her daughter, there were news cameras waiting, and she was booked by the police. What she said to me was that she was shocked. She was really floored. And she said to me, "You'd swear I'd killed somebody." It felt to her like a really excessive show of force for what was essentially a misunderstanding between her and her child's school.

So she sort of became the face of the truancy program in a way, as one of the most visible "perpetrators." Can you walk us through Harris's truancy program: what it was, how it came to be, how it worked?

[Harris] fought for this law, which raised the financial penalty and made it a criminal misdemeanor for parents, up to a year in jail, when their children missed at least 10 percent of school time. Big picture, [Peoples's case] was one of the most extreme examples of how this law was used. More broadly, what the law did was create a more standardized way for local law enforcement officials to get involved with making sure kids go to school every day. And so very few parents were arrested and perp walked in this really punitive and splashy way. But what did happen to a lot of families is that they were ushered into a system that asked parents: Why can't why can't you get your act together? Why can't you send your kids to school?

I thought it was really interesting to look at [Harris's] involvement in this issue, because she didn't invent the idea of punishing parents when their kids miss school. California already had a law on its books. Her innovation was to build a really standardized way for local district attorneys to get involved in pressuring parents to make sure their kids go to school. And a lot of education advocates were happy that she brought attention to the issue, because they say attention is actually the number one way we solve truancy. They think it's really important to call people's attention to the fact that, Hey, it adds up when your kids miss school.

What Harris also intended to do was to build a system where the school district officials, teachers and parents could all sit down and talk through the problems: Why isn't your kid coming to school? What are the resources that we could give you to help make sure that your child goes to school every day? And what she sort of layered on top of that was, You will get a series of increasingly scary warnings from the district attorney if this problem doesn't get solved. And that's what people really put their finger on as what they disliked about this program: As the [absenteeism] issue continues, the blame increasingly turns toward the parents. The message becomes: We're giving you everything. Why can't you make this work?

And the reality is that the reasons why kids miss school so often are not totally under the parent's control. But we just increasingly blame the parents. And that is a very typical American way of dealing with school. I mean, that goes back decades, and even hundreds of years. So it's not fair to lay that all at Harris's feet. But what people would say in response is that when you use the criminal justice system to solve social problems, you will criminalize people no matter how good your intentions were.

Just hearing how this plan was conceived, it was not hard to sort of surmise who was going to get caught up in the system. It was probably going to be mothers of color, probably mothers with disabilities or mothers of children with disabilities, mothers who might be housing-insecure or who were experiencing homelessness. Is that who ended up getting tangled up in this initiative?

It's a little bit hard to answer that question, because California also hasn't kept great data on who got caught up in this initiative. Harris wanted them to keep better data, but she didn't get everything she wanted. But generally, when you look nationwide, all of the studies of truancy have found that the children most likely to be labeled truant are Native American children and Black children. And I think what's really important to keep in mind is that education advocates have started talking about the issue as one of chronic absenteeism, rather than truancy. And part of the reason why is because if a child misses school for a valid reason, like they're sick a lot, that's an excused absence. But those missed days of education still add up, and still can cause some problems.

Truancy is more of a measure of blame rather than a measure of how much you've missed school. It's saying; How much did you miss school? Oh, and it's your family's fault. And blame is subject to a lot of kinds of biases when we start making judgments about why kids go to school. And then there's the fact that the reasons why children tend to be absent are all issues that impact people of color more and uniquely, like chronic illness, facets of poverty, access to reliable transportation. Everything that contributes to truancy is a factor that tends to overly impact Black and Native American families.

So when Kamala Harris is spinning up this idea in San Francisco, who supported it, and who was opposed to it?

I think she zeroed in on this for a couple of reasons. When she was the San Francisco district attorney, she was learning things about who were the city's homicide victims and who was committing homicides. And in both cases, she found that a lot of them were high school dropouts. And that's when she started to think about truancy, because missing a lot of school is linked to dropping out of school.

The way she described why she wanted to get involved was, "We need to do things differently." But I also think she knew that, at the time in the mid-2000s, there wasn't really a political downside to saying, "These parents are not meeting their responsibilities, it's causing problems for society at large, and we should crack down on them for the good of the children."

The law passed with pretty broad support. But some public defenders and others were like, Hey, wait a minute. Don't you think that this is just going to be another way we crack down on people of color, on parents who are facing a whole lot of issues, some of which the state has caused? But at the time, those were not calls that were echoed more broadly. The skepticism was fairly limited.

It's interesting if you think about the sort of conclusion she's making. So if you don't complete high school, you have a much higher likelihood of being the victim of violent crime or to perpetrate violent crime, and to have all this contact with the criminal justice system. And she was like, Okay, the solution to that is to open up another opportunity for them to have contact with the criminal justice system.

This is really, really common, right? I think it's a case of looking at two symptoms of a really complicated web of problems and treating one of the symptoms. It speaks to the fact that she was a prosecutor, and so she had only the tools of a prosecutor. Part of the reason why she was looking at the symptoms and treating the symptoms [instead of the root problems], is that's what we make law enforcement do in this country. We don't spend money and commit resources to fixing the host of problems that precede that.

Kamala Harris's record as a prosecutor had come under a lot of scrutiny even before she was named as Joe Biden's running mate. So how has she addressed this program?

After we reported on Cheree's case, Harristalked about regretting that some district attorneys had used this law, which she had fought for with good intentions, to crack down really hard on and to criminalize the parents. She has talked a lot about how her law was intended to give schools the tools to make sure parents work with them to solve these problems. But the general response to that has been something that you mentioned earlier, which is that this law brings parents and students into contact with law enforcement, often at a time when these families are really vulnerable, having issues with job loss or moving because of housing instability.

Part of why I wanted to look at this also was because to me, it kind of speaks to the limits of using the criminal justice system,which Kamala Harris has been a part of for so much of her professional career, to solve really big overarching problems. She's talked about working from within the system to change it. And I think this is a really clear case of how there are limitations to that.

What is the legacy of the program? Is it still in place in some capacity?

The law she passed is still in place, and there was another truancy law on the books before she passed this one. For jurisdictions that mainly use the law to cite parents and take them to court, they've tended to use the law Harris fought for to bring up more serious charges. Other jurisdictions have embraced the spirit of her program, and use the law that she passed as the threat, in order to get parents to come to conferences and sit down with school officials and talk through what the issue is. So both things are happening.

I visited one jurisdiction where they've set up truancy courts, usually under the auspices of the existing family court. And that's a place where they can get parents to come in on a regular basis, and the judge checks and makes sure that they're complying with attendance requirements. And then once that happens, usually it goes off their record and doesn't end with a fine or jail time.

An unfortunate thing is that California keeps changing the way that it measures truancy. Part of that is to keep up with our evolving understanding of what is actually important to measure. But they keep changing it, ask schools to measure it, and then they don't really centralize that data very well. So we can't really say if the law that Harris fought for brought the truancy rate up or down or made no change, because they're not counting very well. And that's not on her; she wanted the state to keep count. But it's telling about the way that we approach criminal justice a lot in this country. We identify a problem. We pass a law. It goes into the bureaucracy. And now with Harris's case, there's a law on the books, and we don't really know how this is impacting people's lives.

What happened to Cheree Peoples and her daughter?

Cheree Peoples wound up fighting these charges in court for a really long time. They got passed among different prosecutors and detectives, and for a long time, there was pressure on her to plead guilty to this. And she wouldn't do it. She felt like this was really unfair. She knew that the issue wasn't that her child was skipping school willy-nilly; she had a good reason that the school was aware of, and that the issue was that she and the school needed to come to an agreement about accommodating her daughter's disability. She held fast, and eventually the charges were dropped. To this day, she doesn't completely know why.

While she was fighting this in court, she was also caring for her daughter. She struggles with employment because her daughter's illness really takes a lot of care and management. It can be all-encompassing in their lives sometimes. This was a really tough time for her.

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.