In 2011, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) police handed out around 10,000 tickets to students for offenses ranging from jaywalking to truancy—criminal citations that could include hefty fines and an absence from school to attend court proceedings with their seriously honked-off parents.
After withering criticism that has intensified this past year, the policy was changed and starting December 1, students under the age of 13 will not be given tickets for minor transgressions committed during school hours on or near school grounds. The new policy was spelled out in a memo from LAUSD chief Steven Zipperman and includes a broad exception for those moments when “all other methods” to achieve a teachable moment by milder methods fall flat.
The policy applies only to LAUSD police officers; Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s departments are not covered by it. It comes at a time when the number of such tickets has already declined precipitously due to community opposition.
Child-rights advocates have long argued that police are brought into student disciplinary situations too early and too often. A study by the Center for Public Integrity found that 43% of the 10,200 LAUSD tickets issued in 2011 went to students 14 or younger.
Many of the students in LAUSD, the second-largest school district in the nation, are from low-income families and an early encounter with law enforcement can be problematic. Only 56% of the district’s students graduate; 80% qualify for a free or reduced lunch; and 88% are students of color. A ticket that requires a court appearance is often ignored, resulting in a criminal record at an early age for minor offenses.
The Community Rights Campaign, which issued a report (pdf) in October on “over-policed” L.A. schools, said truancy was the Number One cause of LAUSD police referrals of students to the juvenile justice system in the past. Tickets ran $250, accompanied by a $1,000 court appearance fee. Failure to pay could result in blocked driver’s licenses, incarceration and criminal records.
But steady opposition to the policy forced a decline in “tardy sweeps” in front of schools, reducing the number of tickets from 3,341 during the 2009-10 school year to 1,618 in 2011-12 and 209 in 2012-13 through May. Serious truancy is being handled through counselors instead of courts.
Civil rights groups have argued that thrusting kids into the criminal justice system early creates a system that sets kids along a path likely to increase their chance of being involved in criminal behavior later in life. In a school district like LAUSD, with its high percentage of minority students, that can exacerbate issues of discrimination and grease the school-to-prison pipeline. More than 60% of incarcerated people in the country are racial or ethnic minorities.