September 2, 2009

In the three years that Erick Fuentes-Casas has been in high school, he’s gotten three truancy tickets for being out on the streets during school hours.

The first time, Fuentes-Casas didn’t think too much of it. He was a ninth grader at Cleveland High School in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It was the beginning of the school year, those early days when homework is light and everyone is settling into their schedules. He was walking with friends one morning, late for class, but, “we were on the same block as Cleveland on our way to school,” recalled Fuentes-Casas, who is beginning his senior year. “The cop pulled us over, asked for our IDs, and he said, ‘You guys [are] getting a ticket for being late.’”

Truancy tickets don’t come cheap. They cost $250 dollars each.

The second one, which Fuentes-Casas got during his sophomore year, cost $570 because he was stopped by an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department around the corner from an alley where some graffiti had recently gone up. Although Fuentes-Casas, who’s on the track and field team, had a race off campus that day and a school pass that allowed him to be out of classes early, he still got a ticket.

Both times, Fuentes-Casas’s brother accompanied him to court and got the tickets dismissed. “By then, I was fed up with the police,” Fuentes-Casas explained. “Ever since then, I keep my distance from school police because I don’t trust them.”

But a few months later, he got his third ticket.

This time, his niece had begun daycare, and, as these things go, a morning came when all the other family members needed to be at work. The high schooler took his niece to daycare before heading to high school. He was stopped and ticketed for being 20 minutes late. Fuentes-Casas ended up having to pay the $250 fee on this ticket.

Fuentes-Casas’s story is neither new nor uncommon.

Under Operation Stay-in-School, an anti-truancy program put into effect in Los Angeles public schools in 2003, a whole host of police departments—from the LAPD and the Los Angeles Unified School Police to the Los Angeles World Airport Police—and multiple city departments are now authorized to ticket kids for truancy.

While the anti-truancy tactics are meant to curb crime and keep kids in school, advocates and students alike say the policy is unfairly targeting kids of color and students from low-income families who depend on public transportation and have other family responsibilities that make them late for school.

The process for challenging the truancy tickets also takes an undue toll on poor students and families of color.

Once students receive citations, they must appear in court with their parent or guardian to contest or pay the fine, which can reach up to $450 on the third offense. Parents who don’t comply can themselves be prosecuted for their kids’ truancy. And according to the Los Angeles Times, parents at a public meeting at Hollywood High School were reminded by city officials that they could even be disqualified from public assistance if their children are ticketed for truancy.

Throw into this mix Los Angeles’s daytime curfew laws, which forbid kids from being outdoors or in public places between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and it’s almost impossible for students of color and their families to not get caught up in the legal system.

Damon Azali-Rojas, a community organizer with the Labor Community Strategy Center, which is spearheading a fact-finding and education effort about these policies, said 12,000 curfew citations were given out in Los Angeles in 2008 alone, with the majority coming from daytime curfew violations.

Truancy tickets are supposed to target kids who ditch class chronically, not kids like Fuentes-Casas who received citations while on his way to school. And yet, the district’s definition of what qualifies a student for truancy is merely having more than three unexcused absences in a school year.

“I’ve never seen a gang member who wasn’t a truant first,” former California District Attorney Kim Menninger stated in the 1996 publication Manual to Combat Truancy prepared jointly by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.

To Andrew Terranova, a 12th grade social studies teacher at Westchester High School, truancy tickets are a backwards form of punishment. “From an educational standpoint, if the problem is that they’re not in school,” said
Terranova, “it makes no sense to punish them and then make them leave school again for a whole day to show up in court.”

Terranova added that Westchester gives several warnings but has also been known to ticket kids who are just minutes late for school.

Advocates and students say it is clear that the policies that target kids of color and low-income kids in effect create so-called truants rather than diminishing the number of students skipping school.

Truancy is not a small problem for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has one of the highest dropout rates in the country. Data released by the California Department of Education puts the district’s high school dropout rate last year at 35.3 percent. But in 2008, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa argued that the real number of students who left high school early was actually around 55 percent.

Black and Latino students, overwhelmingly young males, are overrepresented among the ranks of dropouts. They make up 44 and 36 percent, respectively, of the total number, according to the California Department of Education’s 2008 numbers.

Advocates insist that the school district, mired as it is in budget woes along with the rest of the state, has been using ineffective, punitive measures that often do nothing to encourage better attendance and, ironically, actually decrease federal and state funds coming in by causing students to be absent in order to go to court.

“Use of [truancy tickets] has gone way up,” said Lisa Adler, an organizer with the Stragey Center. “They are increasingly used to penalize lateness.” And, as Adler also pointed out, every school has its own policy, and every police officer wields an enormous amount of discretion with the enforcement of these policies.

According to advocates, the problem represents the confluence of many factors: the increasing militarization of schools, the district’s focus on punitive measures, the reality of families living in poverty and the absence of funding for basic counseling programs.

To fight back, the Labor Community Strategy Center has been organizing kids in an after-school program called Taking Action. Organizers conducted surveys of more than 1,200 kids who are coming back with stories very similar to Fuentes-Casas’s. One student, Kassie Walters, got a truancy ticket while she was on school grounds at Westchester High School.

The group, which is still in its fact-finding phase, nevertheless has two basic demands. They want to see reform of police behavior on high school campuses and an end to wanton ticketing. They have met with school board members and are circulating flyers at schools informing students of their rights.

“The more interaction kids have with the police,” reminded Azali-Rojas, “The more likely they are to drop out eventually.”


Julianne Ong Hing is the ColorLines editorial assistant and an editor of RaceWire.org.