After a four-year community-led campaign, Los Angeles is moving to replace a punitive anti-truancy policy targeting the city's most vulnerable school kids with an approach that actually works.
Last week, the Los Angeles School Police Department followed the first steps of the Los Angeles Police. Earlier this year, the LAPD announced that its officers would no longer ticket students within a designated safety zone for the first 90 minutes of the school day. Now, school police officers have promised to do the same. The policy change means that two of the three law enforcement agencies that have a presence in Los Angeles Unified public schools have committed not to ticket students during this time period.
"From our perspective we're creating greater protections for black and Latino youth in LAUSD schools and supporting ending the criminalization of young people," said Manuel Criollo, the director of organizing at Los Angeles-based Strategy Center, which spearheaded the campaign.
It used to be standard policy that Los Angeles public school students caught outside of school during the day could be slammed with a $250 ticket for violating daytime curfew laws. In order to resolve the ticket, students and their parents would have to go to court, a disruptive inconvenience that many families could barely afford.
Youth advocates argued that far from being an effective anti-truancy measure, the policy actually discouraged kids from trying to get to school on time, or from going at all.
"Kids were instead getting the message that if I'm going to be five minutes late, if the bus is going to be late, if I have to drop off a sibling at school, then I should just stay at home because we can't afford that process," said Laura Faer, directing attorney with Public Counsel's Children's Rights Project.
Punitive anti-truancy policies continue to be popular. This year a similar anti-truancy law that allows the state to prosecute parents of students who miss more than ten percent of their classes went into effect at the state level.
In a review of the LAPD's ticketing records, it turned out that 88 percent of the 47,000 tickets issued by the LAPD and LASPD between 2004 and 2009 were handed out to black and Latino students, even though they make up 74 percent of the district's enrollment. Advocates also argued that the policy unfairly targeted poor students and students of color who depend on already unreliable public transit to get to school and often have out-of-school responsibilities that hamper their ability to get to class on time. According to Criollo, it's "unclear" whether white students received any of the tickets handed out by LASPD officers.
"With this directive," Los Angeles School Police Department Chief Steven Zimmerman said in a statement, "school police officers will be a stronger partner with principals, students, parents and teachers to keep students on track within the educational environment by reducing court appearances and increasing alternate attendance improvement program alternatives offered through a non-penal system or judicial environment."
Under the policy change, LASPD have also been directed not to automatically search and handcuff students who were caught away from their classrooms. In the past, it's been standard practice, Criollo said, to handcuff and search students who were about to be ticketed.
The school-to-prison pipeline's well-documented impacts on communities of color are making many question the efficacy of punitive zero-tolerance policies. The more interaction a student has with law enforcement officers, the more likely they are to end up dropping out of school. Now, a task force convened by Judge Michael Nash, the supervising judge of the Juvenile Court, is coming up with alternative strategies for dealing with Los Angeles' legitimate dropout problem. The task force's recommendations are expected in April, Faer said.
The Strategy Center, the ACLU of Southern California, Public Counsel, CADRE, the Youth Justice Coalition, and the Children's Defense Fund worked with the LASPD to revise this policy.