Many of the landmark battles of our Civil Rights movement hinged upon the right to an education. We all remember the images. Nine Little Rock school children under the escort of federal troops. A deadly firefight between U.S. Marshalls, 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. And 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. In San Francisco, African Americans make up just 11 percent of public school population, but account for nearly 40 percent of truant students.
So many of our young African American children become truants, juvenile delinquents, and dropouts.
We can either pay attention to the signs of trouble now, or we can pay the price later. 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. Our children 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 send 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 urge them with services to improve their children's attendance.
In most cases, attendance improves. But when it does not, 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.
Let's call on our local and state elected leaders to recognize that the children 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.