With her background as a prosecutor complicating her presidential campaign, California Sen. Kamala Harris backed away this week from her previous stances on prosecuting the parents of truant students.
Harris, a Democrat who championed tough-on-truancy laws as one of her signature issues while serving as San Francisco’s district attorney and California attorney general, told a liberal podcast host on April 17 that any parents who were jailed under laws she supported were victims of “unintended consequences.”
“My regret is that I have now heard stories where in some jurisdictions DAs have criminalized parents,” Harris said to Jon Favreau, who hosts the “Pod Save America” podcast. “The thought that anything I did could have led to that, because that certainly was not the intention.”
These comments represent a significant departure in both substance and tone from positions Harris took and statements she made nearly a decade ago.
As San Francisco’s district attorney and candidate for attorney general, she touted her efforts to crack down on parents with chronically truant students and was a vocal supporter of a statewide law passed in 2010 that allowed police to file misdemeanor charges against parents of habitually truant students. Under the law, parents can be fined as much as $2,000 and serve up to a year in jail.
During a speech in 2010, Harris attributed her success in life to her education and said: “I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime. So, I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy.”
She went on to acknowledge that it was a controversial position for a prosecutor to take in liberal San Francisco.
A clip of that 2010 speech went viral during the days after Harris announced her run for president in February and drew widespread condemnation from youth and civil rights advocates, as well as other politicians, who see such laws as tantamount to punishing parents for being poor and living in communities with under-funded schools.
Initially, Harris’ campaign avoided commenting specifically on her actions toward the parents of truant students — a spokesperson told a HuffPost reporter in January that Harris “believed a critical way to keep kids out of jail when they’re older is to keep them in school when they’re young.”
Harris reiterated that sentiment in her interview April 17, but also said that when she was the San Francisco DA her office never sent a parent to jail. “Not under my watch, never,” she said to Favreau.
Though she has taken heat for her past approaches to truancy on the presidential campaign trail, state and local officials whose job it is to focus on school attendance say Harris, as much as any other state leader, played a significant role in raising awareness of chronic absenteeism. Years after she first called attention to it, absenteeism rates are now one of the main measures of success on the California School Dashboard, the state’s online report card on how schools and districts are doing on a range of indicators.
“Her work and her studies really created a statewide focus on this issue,” said Amir Alavi, a deputy district attorney in Riverside County who is also on the State Attendance Review Board. “To say she had a strong impact on the field is not a controversial statement. If anything it’s an understatement.”