What’s the No. 1 thing that people who are arrested in Philadelphia have in common?
According to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, it’s that they did not complete high school.
In an effort to keep students on the path to graduation, Williams said last week during a City Council budget hearing that he’d like to get tougher on the parents of elementary school students who are chronically truant.
“High school dropouts are eight times more likely to end up in state prison than high school graduates,” said Williams. “More tragically, here in Philadelphia we know that if you are a high school dropout, you are 20 times more likely to be a homicide victim.”
The Philadelphia Department of Human Services already assigns caseworkers to the chronically truant, defined as a student with 10 or more unexcused absences in a school year.
Williams would like to be more aggressive in holding parents accountable.
Under his program, the DA’s office would send letters to the parents of chronically truant elementary school students – instructing the guardians to meet with their child’s school principal. If the meeting doesn’t happen within 30 days, the DA’s office would send another letter asking parents to meet with the DA’s juvenile division.
“And then if they don’t do that,” Williams said, his office would bring “endangering the welfare of a child felony charges against that parent.”
Taking the role of ‘bad cop’
But his goal is not to “criminalize” parents.
“We just want to be the bad cop to DHS’s good cop to get those families the services they need to end the dysfunction,” he said, adding that San Francisco and San Diego have implemented these systems to great avail.
In order to follow through on this plan, the DA’s office needs the names and addresses of the chronically truant.
The city’s charter schools have cooperated in delivering this information, but not so the Philadelphia School District, Williams said.
Williams says he’s had a good relationship with schools Superintendent William Hite and the district’s past leadership, but, “it’s this layer of bureaucracy right below them that has thwarted any opportunity for collaboration and meaningful collaboration with the district attorney’s office.”
Barriers to attendance
The Philadelphia School District dismissed Williams’ characterization.
“If they want to call federal law a bureaucracy, then, be it so,” said district spokesman Fernando Gallard. “The act is very clear with what information we can share.”
Gallard refers to the federally mandated Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“We’re bound by the requirements of FERPA and are unable to provide to the district attorney the information that he is requesting,” he said.
In the 2012-13 school year, 5,200 district students were referred to the district’s office of attendance and truancy – 3.5 percent of the district’s enrollment that year. (Not every student referred ends up being labelled “truant.”)
The school district says the better solution to reducing chronic unexcused absence is to understand the barriers students face.
“OK, what are your barriers?” Gallard said in explaining the logic. “Is it that you have no way to get to school? Is it that you have some family issues at home? Are you the caretaker of your siblings? Is it that you have to work to make a living and sustain yourself? What are these barriers?”
Criminalization pushes students further away; reaching out to them, Gallard said, “is what’s going to bring our students back.”
Williams called the school district’s FERPA argument bogus, because the law allows certain exceptions for schools to cooperate with law enforcement.
Lessons of Lebanon
Sonja Kerr, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said Williams may be correct in his interpretation of FERPA. But she agrees with the district’s philosophical approach.
“It doesn’t help to involve the juvenile system in truancy cases. It usually exacerbates the problem,” said Kerr. “If a child isn’t coming to school, it hasn’t worked to involve the criminal justice system. it just hasn’t historically worked.”
In 2011, PILCOP filed a lawsuit against the Lebanon School District for “adopting an abusive and counterproductive policy of levying exorbitant truancy fines.”
During the 2008-2009 school year, the district fined parents more than $500,000 – leading to parents being incarcerated and students being placed in foster care.
The court agreed with PILCOP and, in 2013, ordered the Lebanon School District to end its practice and set up a fund to repay parents for any fines over $300.
“We certainly wouldn’t want to see the Philadelphia School District start a program like Lebanon,” Kerr said.