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Kamala Harris' War Against Truancy: Was It Necessary And What Went Wrong?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Kamala Harris' record as a prosecutor in California is once again open to scrutiny now that she is Joe Biden's running mate. One particularly contentious part of her record is her years-long campaign against truancy. That is when a child is chronically absent from school without an approved reason. Harris launched that campaign when she was San Francisco district attorney after learning that a high proportion of homicide victims were high school dropouts. Later, as she ran for attorney general in California, she pushed for a state law that would penalize parents whose children miss too much school. Here's what she said at her inauguration in 2011.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: We are putting parents on notice. If you fail to take responsibility for your kids, we are going to make sure that you face the full force and consequences of the law.

KELLY: The law remains controversial today. Molly Redden of HuffPost wrote an article last year titled "The Human Costs Of Kamala Harris' War On Truancy." And Molly Redden joins us now.

Welcome.

MOLLY REDDEN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

KELLY: Lay out for us what Kamala Harris was hoping to achieve here by going tough on parents.

REDDEN: Yeah. She really argued that preventing truancy - it wasn't just about ensuring that every child got a great education, which is, of course, a great goal, but also to avoid future criminality. And so that's why she said it made sense for her as the top law enforcement officer in the city to get involved in an education issue. And according to her office, San Francisco's truancy rates did begin to fall. She says that they fell in the city by 32%.

KELLY: I mentioned the California Legislature passed a law, and it included that parents could face a $2,500 fine or could face a year in jail if their kids were truant. Spell out for me what the criticism of this law was.

REDDEN: So the criticism of this law is that when children miss a lot of school, a lot of times, the reason for that is not totally under the parents' control. Maybe the parent or family moves around a lot because the parent has lost a job. Maybe the child doesn't feel safe in school. There can be a lot of reasons, and schools and parents can work together to solve those problems.

But what the law does is escalates things in ways that point fingers at the parents. You know, first, there's a letter sent home - hey, why isn't your kid in school? And then there's a conference to try to work out a solution. But if that doesn't work, then maybe there's a letter from the district attorney, and then maybe there's a court date and a hearing. And so it increasingly blames the parents, critics said. And oftentimes, parents just don't have all the resources they need to solve these problems.

KELLY: Give us an example just to make this personal. I noted one woman who you interviewed in your reporting - her daughter has sickle cell. Her daughter is often too sick to go to school. The school knew that. Your article is accompanied by a picture of this woman being led off in handcuffs when her child had missed too much school. What's - what is their story?

REDDEN: So that woman's name is Cheree Peoples. She claims that the school was not working with her in the way that the school is legally required to do to make sure those absences are excused. You know, what happened in this case, it appears, is that the prosecutor just took a really punitive stance, didn't really engage in the spirit of the law that Harris fought for - which is that schools and parents would work together - and just pulled the trigger on filing charges against her, perp-walking her in a way that Ms. Peoples says didn't really solve anything. She fought this case in court for two years, and then the charges were one day dropped.

KELLY: So in the coming up to a decade now since Kamala Harris pushed for this to become a state law, has she expressed any regret over the way this has played out? Has she shifted her stance at all?

REDDEN: So she has not shifted her stance generally on taking on the issue. And I should say that education advocates that I spoke to are generally glad that she focused attention on this issue. Harris has said that she regrets that she's heard stories where the DAs have criminalized the parents. She said, I regret that that has happened and the thought that I did anything that could have led to that.

KELLY: I suppose the broader question here is, what did you learn in reporting this in terms of the way she approaches tackling entrenched societal problems that she sees this as something to be worked through the apparatus of law enforcement?

REDDEN: I think it shows the limits of trying to change a system from inside the system. That's something that Harris talks about as her origin story a lot. She had an activist mother. She grew up with activists. And then she became a prosecutor because she thought she could make a bigger difference from the inside. And what a lot of critics said is that her fight against truancy shows that there are limits to transforming a system from the inside.

KELLY: Molly Redden - she's a senior reporter with HuffPost.

Thanks so much for your time.

REDDEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.