WHAT'S THE BEST way to cut down on the school-to-prison pipeline?

Keep kids in school, according to District Attorney Seth Williams.

The city's top prosecutor routinely recites the frightening statistics: High school dropouts in Philly are eight times more likely to go to state prison than their counterparts. They are also more likely to be murder victims.

To tackle the issue, Williams wants to get tougher on truancy by sending letters to families of students who rack up 10 or more unexcused absences - with the threat of criminal charges if the kids don't straighten up.

"I want the D.A.'s office to be the hammer for [Superintendent William] Hite or the administrative judges in Family Court or [the Department of Human Services]," Williams said during a recent interview.

The problem is that the School District of Philadelphia isn't on board. Officials said they are prohibited by federal privacy laws from sharing certain student information.

"We've discussed this with the D.A. several times," said Karyn Lynch, the district's head of student support services. "If we could find a way, we would certainly do this."

There are also critics who think the D.A.'s involvement would erode trust between schools and families.

But Williams, who has been pushing the idea for several years, insists he doesn't want to prosecute or criminalize parents; he just wants to motivate them.

"I want the family to get the social services that DHS provides," he said. "But I'm the social worker of last resort as the D.A."

In addition to sending a letter to families, Williams said his office would meet with families one-on-one and steer them to the social services they need. More meetings would be scheduled if the absenteeism persists.

Last school year, more than 11,700 students in district-run schools were considered truant. Nearly 37 percent, or 4,332 kids, were in grades K-8.

Currently, schools refer students with more than 10 unexcused absences to regional truancy courts, where social workers and hearing officers work with families to come up with a plan to get the children to school. If attendance doesn't improve, cases are referred to Family Court, where DHS becomes involved.

Williams said his involvement would serve to complement the current process.

San Francisco model

His approach - very similar to what already occurs here - is modeled after a program he observed in the mid-2000s in San Francisco. Then-District Attorney Kamala Harris created a truancy court, which helped cut truancy by 37 percent, officials said. Before referring students to truancy court for prosecution, schools must make several attempts to intervene, and as a result only about 1 percent of cases go to court.

"Even the existence of truancy court . . . affected the behavior of a lot of families who had marginal levels of truancy," said Katy Miller, chief of alternative programs at the San Francisco D.A.'s office.

Miller said prosecutors often get involved before a case is even referred to truancy court.

"It's not about imposing the penalty, it's about changing behavior," she explained.

In San Francisco, the initiative started with elementary grades - also the area Williams wants to focus on - but has since expanded to high school, at the school district's request. Officials said addressing truancy before kids reach adolescence is key.

"Younger students are easier to work with and easier to turn around because they are less entrenched in their truant ways," said Marc Massarweh, an assistant district attorney in San Francisco who prosecutes truancy cases. "If you get them at a younger age, before both them and their parents are set in their ways of shrugging school off . . . they're less built into that habit and you can get them back on track easier."

'This is where we are'

Lynch, the school district's head of student services, said the district wants to accommodate Williams, but has been told by the U.S. Department of Education that sharing information about student attendance would violate federal privacy laws. A Family Court judge has affirmed that stance.

She said the district has proposed sending out the letters on the D.A.'s letterhead, but Williams declined.

"We have made a number [of attempts] to try and come as close as possible to what he wants . . . and this is where we are, and those suggestions and those offers that we have made have been turned down," Lynch said.

"We highly respect the D.A. and consider him to be a valued partner, and if his efforts and our efforts collectively can make a difference with something as important as student attendance, we support that, but we're held to such a high standard that we have to obey the regulations in the law."

She also noted that Williams' office would refer families to the same DHS resources as the district.

Despite the legal hurdle, 54 charter schools take part in the D.A.'s initiative. When asked why charters are not subject to the privacy law, Lynch didn't have an answer.

"Quite honestly, I really think that's the story," she said.

Assistant District Attorney Ebony Wortham, who heads the effort, said the office has had great success in working with charters. According to her, about 75 percent of parents who reach the 10-absence threshold respond after they get the letter.

Wortham helps them to understand how truancy can lead to other problems, such as delinquency.

"Usually that presentation is very impactful and what happens is it starts a dialogue between the family, the school and myself," she said. "And I've seen a tremendous impact from those meetings, and I've seen the number of truant students cut in half."

One of the schools involved in the initiative is Grover Cleveland Mastery Charter School in Tioga. Mastery took over the school in September 2012 with attendance around 89 to 90 percent, and officials began working with the D.A.'s office to help improve that.

"Once [parents] saw the D.A. was involved, I think they took it more serious [like], 'This is not just a meeting in school, this is a meeting with the D.A.'s office,' " Cleveland principal Natalie Catin St. Louis said.

"It just really is reducing our numbers and we're seeing a lot less truant families and that's one of the [benefits]."

According to Catin St. Louis, the initiative has also led to better communication with parents who want to avoid reaching 10 absences, so prosecutors don't become involved.

In addition to the initiative, Cleveland has two social workers on staff. Attendance is now about 95 percent, the principal said.

'The wrong direction'

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of trying to keep kids out of jail in the long-term by threatening to lock up parents.

"Most parents want their kids in school, but if you have the law coming after parents you're also going to breed mistrust in families," said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania and a parent of students in the district.

"It really seems to me like the wrong direction."

Sonja Kerr, director of disability rights at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, is also wary of an approach that would look to punish families.

"What I would not want to see is a situation where parents are subject to fines and a real negative type of approach because it doesn't solve truancy," she said. "It might look good, but it doesn't solve truancy."

Kerr said the organization would be glad to sit down with Williams to come up with a more positive approach.

Cameron Kline, spokesman for the D.A.'s office, said the office would be glad to further discuss the effort, but he disagreed with the characterization of the initiative as a negative approach.

"It's not all stick. There's a lot of carrot in those discussions, especially with the services that are offered during interviews and the one-on-one support with families," Kline said. "There's a lot there that offers positive reinforcement."

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