This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Kevin McCorry for NewsWorks
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 chronically truant students, those 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 District Attorney’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 office would send another letter asking parents to meet with the district attorney’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 effect.
To follow through on this plan, the District Attorney’s Office needs the names and addresses of the chronically truant students.
The city’s charter schools have cooperated in delivering this information, but the Philadelphia School District has not, Williams said.