Make an appearance

It’s a story that’s been told many times, perhaps most significantly in Malcolm Gladwell’s influential book The Tipping Point, but it’s one our state legislators may need to hear at least once more: In New York City, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a crackdown on seemingly insignificant crimes such as graffiti and vandalism contributed to a sharp decline in serious crime rate, much to the surprise of everyone involved.

The reason, Gladwell and others have since explained, is that the prevalence of graffiti, vandalism and petty crime sends a message to the community that laws don’t matter, creating a context in which some individuals will be more likely to commit serious crimes. Send a different set of signals, and the same individuals will make better choices.

It’s a lesson that we hope will be remembered as state Senator Darrell Steinberg and Assemblyman Dave Jones seek funding for an innovative new program designed to combat truancy. Based upon the success of a pilot program in South Sacramento—and its apparent impact on more serious crime in the area—the local legislators will be seeking $2.5 million in this year’s state budget to fund local efforts and launch similar programs in nine other California cities. We believe this would be money well-spent and urge legislators of both parties to support the Attendance Center Partnership proposal.

If evidence was needed that a focus on truancy could have a wide variety of impacts, Sacramento residents got it in the wake of the establishment of the attendance center at Luther Burbank High School. The program has not only been successful in getting young people back in school, with more than 90 percent returning to class on a regular basis, but police also say it has been a factor in reducing youth crime, with vandalism down 16 percent and grand theft down 31 percent since October.

The program is simple, but the message it sends is powerful. Whereas previously truancy might result in nothing more than a note in the mail and a request for a meeting with parents weeks later, the new program requires truants and parents to attend immediate counseling sessions. The program helps families to cope with the various problems—often including economic and mental-health issues—that may underlie truancy. Just as important, it sends a message to the young people involved that truancy is a serious issue and that their education truly matters to the community.

The results speak for themselves, and everyone involved—from the school district and police to the parents, community groups, and local politicians who have supported this—deserves praise. Now it’s time for the rest of us to chip in.

The attendance center needs funding, and in these lean budget times it may not get it without a show of public support. Let your state legislators know you support the request for $2.5 million to fund the Attendance Center Partnership in Sacramento and nine other cities. It’s a message we need to send, and one that could have far-reaching impacts.