In the wake of the recent surge of Omicron cases in Oakland, schools have been a disorganized mess with large numbers of students and staff sick and absent. Fed up with the lack of real safety protections in the schools, such as regular testing, adequate masks and outdoor eating accommodations, teachers and students began to take matters into their own hands and organized a series of sickouts throughout the district. The teacher sickouts effectively shut down at least 13 schools involving an estimated 500 teachers for one day or more, including some of the large high schools. What made these sickouts so noteworthy is precisely that it didn’t just include the large high schools. The student sickouts involved an estimated 12,000 students. While far from satisfactory, a tentative agreement on many of the safety concerns was presented by the district and would not have been possible without these mobilizations.
Since then, some of the students who participated and helped organize the sickouts are now facing disciplinary measures in the form of truancy letters. It is worth noting that these truancy letters are largely the legacy of the current Vice President and former San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala Harris. Kamala Harris’s political career has included being Deputy District Attorney of Alameda County, District Attorney of San Francisco, Attorney General of California and U.S. Senator representing California before becoming the current Vice President. When Harris was District Attorney of San Francisco and Attorney General of California, she pursued a number of punitive measures as a strong defender of “law and order.” Harris notably supported a policy that threatened to jail parents of truant children and fine them up to $2,500 and criminal prosecute the students. She pursued these policies first in San Francisco and then on a statewide level in California.
No one would argue that young people should be chronically absent from school. The reasons behind high truancy of students are rarely simple – whether the family has an unstable living situation, the student has to travel through dangerous neighborhoods to and from school, lack of transportation, or medical problems. But the common denominator is almost always the same – poverty. Rather than beginning to address some of the underlying conditions that create truancy, Harris’s approach to threaten jail time and fines further punished the poor for being poor.
Now these same punitive measures against truancy are being leveled against students in Oakland who have had the audacity to demand that their schools be equipped with resources to provide real safety protection. We say “NO” to the punishments against the students!