Los Angeles moves haltingly toward ending fines for truancy

Juvenile judge tries to alter failed policy with 'rationality'

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A student from San Pedro High School in the Los Angeles area is detained for truancy in 2010 by Los Angeles city officers.

Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze

LOS ANGELES — Fifteen-year-old Juan Carlos Amezcua was just five minutes late for school, and already at the corner by Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles when a school police cruiser’s siren went off last Nov. 16.

The consequences of what happened next — handcuffing, allegations of rough treatment and a $250 daytime curfew ticket — are still resonating here. In January, Amezcua and his cousin, who was also stopped by police en route to school, saw their tickets dismissed in juvenile court. Still upset at their encounter with police, though, the pair and their parents filed a complaint on Feb. 3 with the school district and police concerning officers’ behavior.

Meanwhile, the presiding judge of Los Angeles’ juvenile court and Los Angeles city leaders are also moving to curtail law-enforcement involvement in policing student attendance.

The dispute is indicative of a broader, complex and, at times, racially charged debate over how best to deal with tardy or truant students in jurisdictions across the country. Since the 1990s, cities large and small have adopted daytime curfews with monetary fines to force kids to get to school. Now the City of Angels is at ground zero as the impact of such ordinances is reconsidered.

Next Monday, the Los Angeles City Council’s Public Safety Committee starts a review of proposed amendments to that city’s nine-year-old daytime curfew law. Among the proposals: setting limits on enforcement by police, who routinely search youths and sometimes handcuff them. The proposed amendments would also effectively end $250 fines in favor of negotiated agreements that tardy students submit to counseling.

Troubling history

Aggressive enforcement of the daytime curfew that began here in 1995 has more recently strained students’ relations with police, and ignited protests. Early-morning police “sweeps” that netted kids as they approached schools, especially, inspired a movement among students, parents and civil-liberties groups to protest students being handcuffed — and fingerprinted, in some cases — and then forced to miss more school to go to juvenile court to deal with tickets.

Students at schools with some of the highest dropout rates have reported staying home if they were running late — rather than risk meeting up with police and getting tickets that can rise to $400 once court fees are tacked on.

Being stopped by a police officer “leaves a deep mark and a certain perspective about the culture we live in. It is being treated as a potential offender,” said Zoe Rawson, a lawyer who represents ticketed students in Los Angeles who, data show, have been mostly Latino and black and from low-income areas. “For someone who is disengaged from school, it pushes them away even more.”

That message seemed to be getting through when, last April, and then in October, the chiefs of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s police issued respective guidelines that officers consider “the spirit” of curfew laws and avoid targeting students who were clearly on their way to school.

Sgt. Ken Kimbrough, spokesman for the Los Angeles School Police, said the intent of the sweeps was not to issue fines, but to help kids — some embroiled in dangerous activity — stay in school and direct them to appropriate counseling and family services. “Could there have been some overzealous officers out there? Sure,” he said. “But that’s why the chief put out new guidelines.”

But what youngsters like Juan Carlos Amezcua experienced in November gave rise to questions about whether the new guidelines were working.

Amezcua and his cousin, also 15, were emerging from a market near their school in Los Angeles’ tough Boyle Heights neighborhood when school  officers stopped the teens, handcuffed and searched them. When Amezcua said the two were going to school and added, “You can’t do this,” an officer used profanity and told him to “shut … up or else I’ll slap you in the face,” according to the complaint filed Feb. 3.

One of officers took Amezcua’s baseball cap off and once he was in the car threw it in his face, the complaint alleges. And instead of driving directly into the closest school lot, the complaint says, the officers circled the campus and sped up at each turn, causing the handcuffed students, who were not wearing seatbelts, to slide against the car doors and for one of them to strike his head against the car window.

The students were taken into Roosevelt High School and remained in handcuffs while officers wrote them tickets for being truant at 8 a.m., Amezcua said. By the time they were released, he said, only 10 minutes were left of his second period class.

“They were laughing because I told them I was going to get a lawyer,” Amezcua told the Center for Public Integrity.

Kimbrough said he couldn’t discuss the complaint because it is confidential and under investigation. Police procedure, for the safety of officers, he said, is to handcuff suspected truants if they are transported in a police vehicle. Keeping them cuffed after they are taken into a school is also “pretty common practice” while officers are still investigating circumstances, he said.

A judicial order

Crusaders for curfew reform thought they had reason to celebrate in January, when Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash issued a sweeping directive for court officers to stop imposing monetary truancy fines on any student ticketed in Los Angeles County Nash’s court is one of the biggest juvenile courts in the United States.

Nash’s directive also means that students with previous unpaid fines can perform community service instead.

“I’m not interested in collecting money,” Nash told the Center for Public Integrity. Fines, he said, have proved “onerous. At the end of the day, it’s not an effective system.”

Instead, Nash’s guidelines call for dismissing tickets for students who were clearly headed to school, albeit late, and giving minors who were truly truant a series of opportunities to prove they are attending school, or submitting to counseling or other services. If they don’t follow up, they will be assigned community service and could have driver’s licenses revoked or not granted, which is currently the juvenile court’s ultimate penalty if fines are not paid.

“Hopefully,” Nash said, “we’ve just added a little bit of rationality to the system.”

Until Nash’s order, it was up to a court officer, or “referee,” to decide whether to impose fines, “probation” or community service in lieu of a fine.

Many students’ tickets automatically accumulated into hundreds, even thousands of dollars in fines, Nash said, because the youths never showed up at court. He said many ticketed students were afraid to tell parents, who are required to accompany their children to court and have to take time off work.

Nash said that students who did pay fines last year, however, contributed a large share — he doesn’t know the exact amount — of nearly $7 million in penalties collected by the court’s traffic section, which handles curfew violations.

‘Blunt tool’

The broad reassessment of policies has continued here. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force — which Nash chairs — released a report criticizing daytime curfew citations as a “blunt tool” that can lead to “unnecessary criminalization” of students. “Involving youth in the criminal justice system has the detrimental and unintended consequences of reducing their chances of graduating high school,” the report says.

The report cited 2006 research by a criminologist who analyzed national data and found that a first-time arrest or court appearance increases students’odds of dropping out by at least a factor of three. The negative impact was most pronounced among youths who were not previously in trouble.

The task force included representatives of the Los Angeles city and school police, school districts and civil liberties and community groups.

When Los Angeles adopted the daytime curfew, it was embraced as a tool to fight juvenile crime — police still say it still serves that purpose — and as a way to ultimately boost graduation rates. Keeping students engaged in school continues to be a problem, though. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s high school graduation rate is considered one of the worst in California, with the district’s own calculation at 56 percent and the state’s at 64 percent.

If the proposed amendments to Los Angeles’ ordinance go through, they would not only end the $250 fines, they would allow students to avoid having to make an appearance in Nash’s court if they agree to counseling prior to the court date. The city has developed a dozen facilities called WorkSource Youth Centers to help provide services as part of this alternative plan, supporters say. A Federal Workforce Investment grant of at least $10 million, awarded last September, will help pay for more staff to specifically address truancy.

The amendments would also establish a “rebuttable presumption” that students are traveling to school if they are within a three-block radius during the first 60 minutes of school. Officers would be barred from enforcing the curfew at entrances to school or nearby, and would have to show that they talked to minors and write down on tickets reasons officers were convinced a youth was truly truant.

“They would have to use some discretion instead of just saying, ‘You know what, kid? Tough cookies,’ ” said Tony Cardenas, the councilman who introduced the proposals. Bernard Parks, a council member who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, also backs the proposed changes.

“Truancy rates are directly correlated to low graduation rates,” Cardenas added. “But kids should be dealing with a counselor trained to talk to a young mind.”

Cardenas will separately pursue a requirement for city police to publish statistics on ethnicity and other information about the students those officers cite.

Easy target?

In 2010, the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union and a local group, the Labor Community Strategy Center, disclosed city and school police data showing that 88 percent of more than 47,000 daytime curfew tickets issued in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2009 went to Latino or black students. Together, these students are 77 percent of the student population.

The Center created maps showing that ticketing was concentrated around lower-income Latino and black neighborhood schools. The data also indicated that not one of the more than 13,000 students ticketed during those years by the Los Angeles School Police was identified as white, although whites are 13 percent of that district’s population.

Students who arrive late but in cars with parents driving have escaped ticketing because they are with their parents and not in violation of the daytime curfew.

Maceo Bradley was 15 when he arrived late to Locke High School in December 2010 on foot. He was delayed, he said, because he got caught up looking for some school fundraising material he felt pressured to hand in that day. He reported to the office when he arrived more than half an hour late, and when an attendant told him to go on to class an officer ordered him to stop and wrote him a ticket.

“I had never had an interaction with police, at least not negative, until then,” said Bradley, who is black. He missed much of two days of school to go to court once, and then again 60 days later. His mother also had to miss work both days. He later stayed home one day, he said, when he feared he would be late again.

Gabriel Saldana, Bradley’s schoolmate, said he arrived an hour late one day, also in December 2010, because the first bus he catches was late and he missed a connecting bus. As he walked up to school, an officer told him to stop and wrote him a ticket. “He asked me for my thumbprint,” Saldana said. “I was shocked. But what am I going to do? Say no and end up in handcuffs?"

Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Labor Community Strategy Center, praised Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles School Police Chief Steven Zipperman for their willingness to listen to complaints and issue new guidelines.

But in light of the way Amezcua and his cousin were allegedly treated — after Zipperman’s directive — Criollo co-signed the complaint this month against officers. The complaint accuses the officers of violating the chief’s new policy as well as alleged “unreasonable and excessive” search, seizure and physical restraint.

On Jan. 13, when Amezcua and his cousin appeared in court, as required, their tickets were dismissed because the court officer found that they were headed to school. The boys were obviously pleased. But they did have to miss school to go to court.