By Thandisizwe Chimurenga, New America Media
LOS ANGELES -He was on his way to class. He really was. He wasn’t “ditching” and he had no intentions of leaving campus to engage in illicit or illegal behavior.
Rodney Smith said he forgot his backpack in the school cafeteria and went to retrieve it; that’s the reason he was late to class after lunch, and being late is the reason he was given a truancy ticket.
“…I was just a couple of minutes late … the officers took me to their office to give me the ticket which made me even later for class than I had been for just going to get my backpack,” he said.
“Truancy” tickets are issued to students throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) under Los Angeles Municipal Code 45.04, which prohibits juveniles from loitering during normal school hours. Students who are not in school during those hours and who appear to be without parental/adult supervision are given citations that come with a minimum fine of $50 dollars.
The tickets are issued by officers from the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD), the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Educators and law enforcement officials regard truancy as a “gateway” activity for juveniles that can lead to a life of crime. “The whole process [of issuing truancy tickets to juveniles] is to correct their behavior and to get them into school," said Sgt. Ken Kimbrough of the LASD in an October 21 Los Angeles Times article. "It is not meant to punish them.”
Punishment may be the least offensive descriptor for the activity. Activists charge that the practice of issuing the tickets criminalizes students’ behavior and brings them into unnecessary contact with law enforcement.
Groups such as the Community Rights Campaign (CRC) also charge that the practice creates a financial burden for students’ families and in many instances discourages youth from attending school altogether.
This unfairly punishes the school district’s Black and Brown students, they said.
Hispanic/Latino students, which make up half of the population in Los Angeles, account for about 6 out of every 10 truancy tickets – 62% - according to information supplied by the Los Angeles School Board and the Los Angeles Police Department. African American students, who are less than 10% of Los Angeles’ population, account for close to 20% of all students ticketed.
The L.A. County Superior Court sets the base fine for the tickets at $50, but fees mandated by the California State Legislature fix the total amount for one truancy ticket at $190 if it is paid the same day, and the total fine amount for truancy tickets paid anytime after they are issued jumps to $220.
Since students who receive the tickets are required to appear in court with their parent or legal guardian, and the parent/guardian must be given some sort of advance notice, very few if any tickets are under $200.
According to Manuel Criollo, one of the CRC organizers, students’ are being given tickets with fines as high as $900 because it is their third truancy ticket.
Students who do not alert their parents to the existence of the tickets risk having their driver’s licenses suspended, and of course, fees continue to accrue.
Other students who fear the financial strain that fines will place on their families simply avoid school altogether if they know they are going to be late.
Truancy ticketing may increase truancy
Norma Araiza said she dropped out of Compton’s Dominguez High School when she was 16 largely because she “was afraid of going to school and getting all these tickets that we’re not going to be able to afford. It just got to the point where … if I was late I wouldn’t go in [to school] because at the door there was an officer giving out tickets with the principal, and I would just rather leave…”.
Norma said there were many times when she would just wait until a later period in the school day to attend, but she acknowledges this also had a negative affect on her grades. “It totally [slowed] me down, I don’t have my notes; I didn’t even feel like going to my afternoon classes after that. I feel like ‘well I’m messing up in my first period class and then I’m struggling in my math class, it was extra stressful. I quit going to school and that’s why I’m 19 right here in high school.”
The monies generated from truancy tickets go to a variety of city, state and county funds but none of the monies – 0% – go to the LAUSD, after school educational, tutoring or diversionary-type programs.
“We wouldn’t want that [funding] anyway,” said Dionne Ash, a Pupil Services and Attendance Coordinator for the LAUSD. “We want to provide instruction for our students and have them graduate from school. We don’t want to capitalize on truancy citations.”
As part of its plan to provide instruction to truant students the district unveiled on Nov. 1 what it calls “Attendance Improvement Centers” (AIC). These centers, located on eight middle school and high school campuses throughout the district, are said to be an investment in a “deterrent/intervention program for truants” that provide an alternative to the current policy of truancy tickets, according to a statement released by the District.
“We are asking law enforcement to bring [truant students] to the center, let them receive instruction, and call the parent to pick them up … not just make it [a] punitive, monetary issue,” said Ash.
According to Ash, the first three times a student would be picked up, officials at the centers would notify the parents and offer assistance.
“Most of the time when our students are out of school, there’s something going on. We want to intervene and assist the parents in recognizing what that may be,” she said.
No data is publicly available yet on the numbers of students that have interacted with the month-old truancy centers. Data collection is ongoing and is scheduled to be available for each center by Jan. 1 according to Ash.
As noted by Ash, the Centers will still rely on law enforcement to transport the students and police officers may use their discretion as to whether to bring students to the Centers or their home schools.
“I guess it’s supposed to motivate you to not be late.” - Jackie, Free L.A. High School
Ideally, truancy tickets are issued to students found outside of school grounds and those habitually late to school but in reality, many first-timers are also included and many tickets have been issued to students on the school grounds.
Rodney Smith 17, who left his backpack in the cafeteria, was one of several students who received his while he was inside school grounds last year.
LASPD Deputy Chief Tim Anderson said that his agency currently is no longer ticketing students on school grounds. When asked why the practice occurred in the first place, he replied that officers operated under the rubric of the state Education Code section 48260 which allowed them to ticket “habitually truant persons out of class on campus.”
The LASPD has not given on-campus truancy tickets “in quite a while,” according to Anderson, who said the agency decided to solely enforce the city’s municipal code.
Leighton ‘Sammy’ Samuel, age 16, said that he received his truancy ticket during one of the days that his school, the Free L.A. High, was officially closed. “I was going to the mall and there was a truancy sweep and officers were at Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza and I got stopped.” ‘Sammy’ told the officers he had no school that day but the officers replied that they didn’t have the Free L.A. High School in their database so they gave him a ticket. His parents were informed and he was taken to Crenshaw High School where he was released to his mother. He said he never paid the ticket but he “thinks the ticket was dropped.”
The ‘School to Prison Pipeline
Activists with the CRC referred students from Westchester, Roosevelt, Santee and the Free L.A. High School who had received truancy tickets for this article. Only students from Free L.A. are referenced because students from the other schools either declined to be interviewed for this story or did not respond by press time. The alternative school within the LAUSD operated by the Youth Justice Coalition and in partnership with John Muir Charter School, is for students who have been expelled/barred from the district or for those who dropped out of school before receiving their high school diplomas.
Many of these students also have been “exposed to great levels of street, school and system violence,” according to Kruti Parekh, the school’s administrator.
Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition and a teacher at the school, said was started “because so many of our members … didn’t have any other options.”
A school that is operated in partnership with a social justice organization has the added benefit of being able to train people in organizing; about half of the students’ credits come through various organizing projects, said McGill.
“Our students are all involved in research and campaign work to change conditions and one of the campaigns they’re working on is ending the ‘school-to-jail track.’
McGill maintained that the criminalizing of students of color for tardiness and truancy is part of that track.
Also called the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,” McGill and others charged that students of color in inner-city or urban school districts in particular are being primed for a future of incarceration and not higher education. They said that schools in wealthier, middle class white areas are not “policed” in the same manner.
“… Our schools are unfortunately being built and being operated to look and act more like prisons,” McGill said. “In their architecture, being surrounded by really tall fences oftentimes with barbed wire/razor wire at the top; if they have fences [at the top] that usually would point outward to keep people from climbing and getting into schools, in our schools they’re pointing inward to keep/trap the students inside …”
“In the South Central L.A. schools that a lot of our members come from, or Compton or Inglewood school district, you see those kinds of tactics regularly,” said McGill.
In a letter to the LAUSD Board of Education President Monica Garcia, the Community Rights Campaign urged the district to postpone the opening of the Attendance Improvement Centers (AIC) due to various concerns, including the nature and quality of the interaction between law enforcement and students of color.
“The most pressing question for us [CRC] is where are the written MOU’s [Memorandums of Understanding] between LASPD, LAPD and other law enforcement agencies and LAUSD on how a young person will be stopped, questioned, and what constitutional protections will the student be granted in relations to searches, and a number of other very important questions.”
Earlier this spring, the Interim school police chief, Mike Bowman, gave a verbal commitment to activists earlier that he would suspend the issuance of tickets. However, it is not clear that a new chief of police will honor that same commitment.
Steven Zipperman, a 31-year veteran of the LAPD, was chosen Nov. 12 as the new leader of the school police force. In a statement released by the LAUSD, Zipperman said his priorities will be to build on the work of his predecessors, focusing on school security and a safe learning environment, and “…curtailing truancy using positive reinforcement when available.”
Zipperman will officially begin his duties in January of 2011.
Hopefully, activists won’t have to start over from scratch at that time.
Thandisizwe Chimurenga is a freelance community journalist. She served as the Assistant Editor of the L.A. Watts Times newspaper, part of New America Media's LABEEZ - Hive for Hyperlocal News project. Chimurenga received a 2010 NAM Education Beat Fellowship for ethnic media journalists. The fellowship was made available by the support of William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.