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School discipline debate reignited by new Los Angeles data

District police issued 33,500 court summonses in three years — many to students under 15

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 Updated:

Los Angeles School District Police officers guard the outside of Miramonte Elementary school during a protest earlier this year, unrelated to students' citations.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

As a national debate heats up over appropriate student discipline, new data from Los Angeles reveal that school police there issued more than 33,500 court summonses to youths between 10 and 18 in three years — with more than 40 percent of those tickets going to children 14 and younger.

The data obtained by the Center for Public Integrity show that officers of the nation’s largest school police force issued the equivalent of 28 tickets every day to students during the 2011 calendar year. The Los Angeles Unified School District totals almost 680,000 pupils; the district’s police force has 340 sworn officers and support staff.  

Students ticketed in 2009 through 2011 were disproportionately Latino or African American. Last year, black students represented about 10 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District but 15 percent of those ticketed. In 2010, black students were 20 percent of those cited.

Latinos, about 73 percent of the district enrollment, represented 77 percent of those cited last year. White students, nine percent of enrollment, were about 3 percent of those ticketed.

This sheer volume of citations, the racial and ethnic statistics and the number of younger children cited have all contributed to a brewing controversy over the role of police in public schools in Los Angeles. 

Among those who have expressed concern is Judge Michael Nash, who presides over Los Angeles’ juvenile courts, and has actively supported reforms to reduce police citations for incidents he believes should be handled in schools or through counseling or meetings with parents outside court.

“How much time do our courts have to deal with these kids? I don’t think this has been effective, and it has dealt with them in a superficial way,” Nash said.

Nash, like other prominent juvenile court judges across the country, points to research showing that students who are pulled into court on minor offenses end up at increased risk of going on to more serious trouble and dropping out of school. 

The courts, Nash added, “are not there for schools to abdicate their responsibility to work with kids on minor discipline matters.”

In 2009 through 2011, Los Angeles’ school police cited students for a wide range of infractions that include failing to wear a helmet while biking, jaywalking, vandalism, possessing markers that could be used for graffiti, having cigarettes or a lighter or marijuana possession.

Other than tardiness, one of the largest single categories of citations over the course of three years was disturbing the peace. This offense can stem from kids engaging in fisticuffs, but can also include threatening to fight or simply being boisterous or unruly in school or nearby.

Out of 2,378 citations for various kinds of disturbing the peace allegations issued to kids between 10 and 18 last year alone, far more than half — 1,522 — were given to students between 10 and 14 years old, the Center found.

About 30 elementary-school students from age seven to nine, all black or Latino, were also ticketed during this three-year period. Officers also cited several hundred adults each year.

Community organizations in Los Angeles are also analyzing the police statistics, which they obtained as a result of a public records request. The statistics do not include arrests officers made or summons to full-fledged delinquency court. The 33,500-plus citations in the new data represent referrals to what is known as Los Angeles’ informal traffic and juvenile court for lower-level allegations.

Officers with the Los Angeles Police Department and other city police forces that operate in the district also ticket and arrest students. But the Los Angeles Unified School District Police are a constant presence, with officers posted in schools and patrolling nearby. School staff can request that officers get involved in discipline matters, but officers can also make independent decisions at times to ticket students.

District Police Chief Steven Zipperman, who has been receptive to community groups urging changes in how police interact with students, sent prepared comments Wednesday after the Center’s story was initially published. Ellen Morgan, spokeswoman for the school district and school police, said previously that the district had no response to the Center’s findings and that the chief wanted to review the statistics.

On Wednesday, in a written response, the chief said: “A student’s first contact with school law enforcement usually occurs in middle school. Hopefully, the contact is positive and the student learns from whatever mistake was made.”

Zipperman said “a citation is an educational tool,” and so it is expected that middle-school students will receive more citations than older students. He also noted that overall citations were “trending down over the past three years,” with African American students’ citations “trending lower” and white and Latino students’ citations rising in proportion.  

The Center found that there was a decrease in tickets to 10-to-18-year-olds from 11,880 in 2009 to 10,172 in 2011. Some of that decrease, according to some community organizers, stems from a decline in daytime curfew tickets after complaints began to bubble up from parents and students.

Zoe Rawson, a lawyer with the Labor-Community Strategy Center — one of the groups that requested the citations information — said the data reveal that nearly a quarter of all citations were issued at the Los Angeles district’s middle schools.

“The majority of youth policed on campus,” Rawson said, “are being cited for conduct that is either non-violent or conduct, like fighting amongst students, that a school must anticipate and has the best opportunity to prevent.”

Rawson, who has represented students in court, said that there are proven methods that schools can turn to that help reduce disruptive behavior without resorting to police citations that include community service penalties or fines of several hundred dollars.

Ticketed students are ordered to appear in court with a parent during regular work hours, which means parents must often miss work, which can provoke considerable conflict within families, Rawson said.

Zipperman, in his written response, said: “School yard fights have been a part of school life for a long time. Many intervention programs are in place but young students do not always follow the program . . . Young students sometimes need a wake-up call so that they will not continue similar behavior as an adult. A visit to a juvenile-court referee should help make the student aware that fighting is not tolerated in society.”

Nash, the presiding juvenile-court judge, said many kids don’t tell their parents about tickets, and never show up in court. Their fines can accumulate into thousands of dollars, and they can face a misdemeanor charge for failing to appear.

Jesse Aguiar, 20, is an organizer with a group called the Youth Justice Coalition. He said he received his first ticket — for being disruptive — when he was at 11, at which time he viewed the citation as a badge of honor.

“It was like a dream come true to me,” he said. “I grew up in a neighborhood where I listened to Snoop Dog and that stuff. When I got a ticket from police, I felt that I was official.”

Aguiar said he went on to get into more trouble, eventually doing time at juvenile hall. His younger brother, Christopher, 16, was ticketed for vandalism last year for “tagging” under a freeway. Christopher said he was just bored and looking for something to do. He was also cited for arriving about an hour late to school.

“I overslept,” Christopher said. “I could have not gone to school, but I had an exam that day.”

The 12 informal juvenile and traffic courts, where “referees” rather than judges hear from kids and decide penalties, are slated to be shut down by June 30 due to a financial crunch. 

Once that occurs, Nash said, the plan is to forward students’ tickets to probation officers, who will decide whether the cases merit a conference with parents at a probation office or should be sent to juvenile delinquency court, where students could face prosecutors. Youth advocates are concerned that a trip to juvenile delinquency court will only serve to further “criminalize” student behavior.

Nash said the pending closure of the informal juvenile and traffic courts “is really a golden opportunity for us to all work together to craft a way to deal with this without referral to law enforcement.”

Nash recently took steps to enact reforms inside the informal juvenile courts by ordering that referees there stop requiring students to pay daytime curfew fines, and instead refer students to counseling or community service.

The city of Los Angeles also recently amended its 1995 daytime curfew laws to drop basic fines of $250 and instead require counseling sessions to address root causes of tardiness or truancy and help students make plans to get to school.

Data editor David Donald contributed to this story.

Updated (April 25, 2012, 3:53 p.m.): This story was updated to add comments from Steven Zipperman, schools' police chief.