For a time, the refrigerators of some Minneapolis families featured an everyday object bearing a foreboding message: a magnet that reminded children that if they didn’t go to school or obey curfew, they’d be going to court.
The vaguely threatening kitchen decoration was courtesy of the office of Amy Klobuchar, who was the top prosecutor for Minnesota’s most populous county from 1999 to 2007. Klobuchar, now a Democratic U.S. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate, recalled in a 2010 interview with Politico that the magnet was “hot” with parents.
“They loved putting it up on the wall and saying, you know, if you don't follow these rules, you could get prosecuted,” said Klobuchar. “Whether or not it actually happens, it changes a culture, and that's part of what we're trying to do here.”
But the tchotchke represented something darker to local activists who saw a policy that burdened the poor and people of color, and had the potential to create more chaos in the lives of the children the state was purporting to protect.
As Hennepin County Attorney, Klobuchar made it a priority to use the power of her office to tackle chronic school absence, or truancy, a perennial problem for schools, especially those in low-income, predominantly minority schools in cities like Minneapolis.
Even though truancy is not a crime in Minnesota, Klobuchar frequently called truancy a “gateway to crime” or even “the kindergarten of crime;” in a 2004 op-ed, she urged readers to call the police if they saw truant children out during the day.
Like the other former prosecutor in the 2020 race, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Klobuchar and her prosecutorial record have been scrutinized in light of the ongoing reckoning over the “tough-on-crime” era and its contribution to the injustices of mass incarceration.
Sensitive to criticisms of her record, particularly from communities of color, Klobuchar is now working to establish herself as a leading advocate for criminal justice reform in the 2020 field. On the day of her appearance last week at the National Action Network conference organized by Rev. Al Sharpton, Klobuchar wrote a CNN op-ed calling for further reforms to the justice system, leaning on her experience as a prosecutor to boost her credibility.
But unlike Harris, who has faced significant criticism for her declaration in 2010 that she would prosecute truancy like a crime, Klobuchar’s record on the issue has gone unexamined.
That does not sit well with some back in Minnesota. Bill English, a longtime community activist from Minneapolis’ North Side, said Klobuchar’s truancy approach “showed a total lack of sensitivity to poor parents of color, who often have to leave for work early without transportation, aren’t able to get their kids off to school.”
A campaign spokesperson defended Klobuchar’s record on the issue. “As Hennepin County Attorney, Senator Klobuchar was committed to helping students stay in school, which is why she developed and expanded programs and services to support kids and families and prevent truancy. Her truancy initiatives were never focused on punishing students or parents–they were instead focused on prevention, early intervention and support services to help families and school officials develop strategies to keep individual kids in schools on a case-by-case basis."
After winning office in 1998 on promises to crack down on ills from violent crime to truancy, Klobuchar worked early in her tenure with school officials to push a new policy that threatened students with failing grades if they missed four days of school without an excuse. A student in Minnesota is considered chronically absent if they miss 10 percent or more of the days they are enrolled.
Klobuchar developed new intervention initiatives designed to put truant students and their parents in front of counselors, who would warn them of the consequences of not staying in school and provide services and items—like alarm clocks—to help them maintain attendance.
If those interventions failed, chronically absent students were referred to the county attorney’s office. In the 1999-2000 school year, Klobuchar’s first on the job, her office received just over 1,300 truancy referrals from county school districts. In a 2003 report, the county attorney office stated that it received roughly 1,600 referrals annually.
Most referrals resulted in a student and their parent or guardian being required to appear in court. A 2003 report from Klobuchar’s office explained that a truant student and/or their parent could face a range of punishments. “For a student who is judged truant, sanctions can range from community service or work squad duty to fines or driver’s license suspension to, in rare cases, out-of-home placement,” read the paper.
Klobuchar backed a policy championed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) to make a student’s attendance record a factor in whether or not they receive a driver’s license. A September 2004 story from the AP reported that Klobuchar’s office used the policy to suspend or deny licenses to truants on 200 occasions that year.
“Out-of-home placement,” which removes a student from their home and temporarily places them in foster care or another supervised environment, is a recourse in some jurisdictions for students who are judged truant, often because child protective authorities discover adverse conditions at home in the course of a truancy proceeding. English remembers truant students from the North Side being temporarily placed in foster homes outside the city. “That was unconscionable to me,” he said. A spokesperson for Klobuchar said that out-of-home placement was not solely a response to truancy.
Armed with statistics suggesting truant students were highly likely to commit crimes later in life, Klobuchar and her county attorney’s office argued that an aggressive response to students who missed school would push them off a path of involvement in drugs, gangs, and other criminal activity.
Though Klobuchar pushed programs to bring services to truant students, she was unafraid to dangle the threat of court. “For most kids, having the court get involved in their lives is a powerful incentive to get back to school,” she wrote in an op-ed. “But the sanctions have to be real; kids catch on right away if all they face is a legal paper tiger.”
According to data provided by the Minnesota Department of Education, truancy rates remained relatively consistent through Klobuchar’s tenure as county attorney. In her first school year, roughly 8.5 percent of all students in Minneapolis Public Schools were chronically absent. By the 2005-2006 school year, her last full year in office, that figure had declined to 7.5 percent.
Some individual schools reported more dramatic results. A 2001 report prepared by the Minneapolis Police Department touted the results of a partnership with Klobuchar’s office, targeted at Minneapolis’ North Side, where some schools had truancy rates of 25 percent or higher in the mid-1990s. In a pair of schools, the report said, truancy rates dropped after one year of the new program, which implemented several steps of interventions from school advisers before referring a student to the attorney’s office.
But in the eyes of top city officials, truancy remained a problem through Klobuchar’s tenure as prosecutor. In 2006, when Minneapolis saw the highest spike in violent crime of any city in the Midwest, then-Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan wondered if more money for anti-truancy programs would help solve the problem.
Today, education experts are skeptical of the wisdom of bringing the force of a prosecutor’s office to bear on tackling truancy. According to William Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project at Stanford University, student advocates have long frowned on the designs of prosecutors like Klobuchar and Harris on the issue.
“We don’t want the criminal justice system involved with kids, especially with something like truancy,” Koski told The Daily Beast. “Whether it’s mental health, substance abuse, homelessness, a lot of reasons kids are truant, from the perspective of a child advocate, I think the judicial system is not a way to address those.”