Los Angeles school police still ticketing thousands of young students

Even as negotiations continue on new policies, school police still citing kids as young as 6

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Los Angeles students march in February to end citations with high fines that school officers gave students even if they were only minutes late. Some students stayed home rather than risk tickets, prompting L.A. city councilman Tony Cardenas and L.A. Unified board member Monica Garcia to join protests for changes.

Tami Abdollah/KPCC

Even as Los Angeles authorities continue efforts to reform school-discipline standards, fresh data show that police from the city’s biggest school district are continuing to ticket thousands of young students, especially minorities, at disproportionate rates that critics charge are putting them on a track for dropping out.

Citation rates for this year are little changed from 2011 data. Disclosure of the 2011 data this past spring led to federal civil-rights scrutiny and promises that policies at the Los Angeles Unified School District would be reviewed, and likely changed.

In 2011, children 14 or younger in the school district, the area’s biggest, were issued 43 percent of the nearly 10,200 tickets school police handed out to students for fighting, daytime-curfew violations and other minor infractions — indiscretions that community groups and judges have maintained might better be handled by school officials or referred directly to community-based counseling.

But during the first six months of 2012, even as local juvenile judges’ skepticism about ticketing grew, the share of younger students issued citations increased — to about 48 percent of approximately 4,000 tickets issued, according to a review of the data by the Center for Public Integrity.

Critics concede there has been some progress. Data from September and October reveal district school police officers issued fewer daytime curfew tickets than a year before — the result of new rules adopted last February that stopped police “sweeps” ticketing kids as they arrived to school, even a few minutes late. But records also show that during these two months, school police still wrote up more than 1,000 citations to students mostly for other infractions, including disturbing-the-peace allegations and suspected marijuana smoking.

Since last school year, community and parent representatives have met occasionally with school police officials to discuss their concerns about police involvement in discipline matters. Some school administrators also say they’d like to see clarification as to when an incident merits police officers citing — or arresting — students. L.A. Unified’s school police force is the nation’s biggest such agency, with about 350 sworn officers and 125 school safety officers.

“I think you have to save [police action] for really egregious things, like assault,” said Jorge Cortez, the principal at Judith Baca Arts Academy, a Los Angeles Unified elementary school.

Cortez told the Center that a mom’s complaint last April led to school police issuing tickets to two African-American first-graders who had gotten into a pushing match at his school. The mother of one child called 911, Cortez said.

Sheriff’s deputies declined to get involved, Cortez said. School police officers responded and issued “disturbing the peace” tickets for “mutual fighting” to the six- and seven-year-old boys. The citations were referred to the Los Angeles County Probation Department.

Knowledge of right and wrong?

L.A. Unified School Police Chief Steven Zipperman called citations of children as young as six and seven “an anomaly.”

“When we take a look at citing any student or arresting anybody for a crime,” the chief said, “it is all going to be based on whether they have the knowledge of whether what they were doing is right or wrong.”

Records show that in September and October, tickets were issued to children as young as 10 years old. They also show that that 13-year-olds were cited more often than 14-year-olds, or 17-year-olds. Zipperman explained that kids in the middle-school age group are “probably one of our largest populations [involved]  in a fighting-type activity.”

The chief said he and district officials are continuing to discuss standards for when officers should refer cases back to administrators, rather than issuing tickets —especially for incidents like fighting. Zipperman said he still believes, however, that school police officers need to have the discretion to make decisions on a “case-by-case basis.”

Additional findings from September-October school-police data show:

  • A 10-year-old African-American child was ticketed in September for trespassing at the Menlo Avenue Elementary School.
  • At the Bret Harte Preparatory Middle School, seven African-American students between 11 and 13 were given disturbing-the-peace citations by police for fighting, also in September.
  • Black students were ticketed at twice the rate of their percentage of  school population. 

District officials did not respond to inquiries about these and other specific incidents, but issued a statement that the school police force “has not, and will not, engage in any form of biased or discriminatory enforcement activities.”

The statement says the district “will continue to work with our internal and external stakeholders to identify and evaluate non-penal alternatives to various minor violations.”

But concerns remain. Los Angeles Delinquency Court Judge Donna Quigley Groman, in an interview, noted that “if the approach was the same now when we went to school, a lot of us wouldn’t be where we are now.”  

Groman credits Zipperman with a positive response to concerns about the role of school police, who are obviously critical to student and staff safety. Both the judge and the chief have joined a reform “partnership” that first met in September in the wake of protests over police intervention in discipline matters and Center and Southern California Public Radio stories analyzing previously undisclosed police citation records.

The School-based Arrest Reform Partnership is attempting to negotiate a protocol for when it’s appropriate for police to arrest students in situations that don’t necessarily require it. The talks include representatives of L.A. Unified and its school police force; the city of Los Angeles’ police department; and the L.A. County’s sheriff’s department, probation department, district attorney’s office, public defender’s office and parents and civil rights groups.

Three meetings have taken place and another is planned for January. The first goal is to reach consensus on which offenses might be candidates for an alternative series of responses before resorting to arrest. Such steps could include written warnings and referrals to counseling, said Ruth Cusick, an attorney with  Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm in Los Angeles.

Cusick said the partnership would also like to bring in a representative of United Teachers of Los Angeles, a union representing district teachers. A union representative said the group hasn’t heard from Public Counsel yet.

The meetings come on the heels of other changes that occurred last year, when the L.A. unified district struck an agreement with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Education to reduce suspensions of black students, especially.

The district is pressing all its schools to start practicing “positive behavioral” support methods that emphasize frequent praise to help engage students in school. Some schools have started peer “courts” in school to sort out disputes, as well as referrals to community-based counseling.

“Citations, we need them in there, but we also need to educate our kids as well,” said Earl Perkins, L.A. Unified’s assistant superintendent of school operations.

Positive change, but complaints remain

The efforts to set new standards for police action are a function of both a desire for clarity and new fiscal realities.

This summer, budget cuts led to the closure of low-level juvenile courts in Los Angeles County, which had adjudicated cases involving ticketed students. Children were obliged, ironically, to miss school to go to court with parents so they could answer to truancy or other offenses that carried fines. If they hid a ticket from parents and skipped going to court — as many did — the result was a misdemeanor record.

With those courts now closed, all initial citations for daytime curfew violations are now referred back to schools, or to one of a new series of L.A. community centers with after-school counseling options.

All other types of tickets are going to probation officials, who decide on a course of action. Hopefully, probation officials say, most of the kids currently referred to them will resolve their problems by successfully completing mandated counseling services, sometimes with their families.

Children who are arrested or whose offenses are judged more serious still face higher-level delinquency court.

Groman said she’s been troubled to see kids as young as 11 referred to her court when they’re charged with criminal offenses at school.

Recalling her own youth, Groman related a story of scaring a teacher by running around a classroom with a scissors. “I didn’t know how to express myself any better,” said Groman. “But would I be where I am today if the school had expelled me for being in possession of a weapon? I highly doubt it.”

Similar concerns were aired nationally Dec. 12 at the first congressional hearing on the “school to prison pipeline,” and the impact of zero-tolerance discipline policies. It was held before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

Schools have increasingly become “a gateway” to the criminal-justice system, said Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who presided over the hearing.

Federal justice and education officials testified that research clearly shows that placing students in the criminal-justice system for relatively minor offenses only increases their risk of dropping out and going on to more trouble.

Within the Los Angeles district, some schools are struggling with dropout rates higher than 50 percent.

Age limit needed, some argue

Some community activists would like to see an age limit on kids who could be issued police citations, or a civilian review board to monitor school police.

Hostile contact with school police can have a very profound impact on kids, said Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, which led the charge to rein in daytime-curfew sweeps around inner-city Los Angeles schools.

Many students are struggling in school or at home, Criollo said. Even those who are doing well, he said, get discouraged if police treat them as potential troublemakers.

The Strategy Center helped file complaints with Zipperman on behalf of two boys who were stopped by officers near their school, minutes late, and were searched, handcuffed and allegedly intimidated inside a squad car before officers took them into school and wrote them curfew tickets. The complaints, reported by the Center earlier this year, are still under review, Strategy Center lawyer Zoe Rawson and police said.

The national picture

U.S. schools have only recently been required to disclose ticket and arrest numbers to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is trying to measure the extent of student referrals to police and courts.

L.A. Unified, along with other districts, failed to submit its data last year. District officials explained that calculating referrals is daunting because multiple police agencies operate in the L.A. district.

But records reviewed by the Center suggest that L.A. Unified’s school force, which by far has the most contact with students, tickets them at higher rates than police assigned to New York City’s schools. With about 1 million students, New York’s system is the only U.S. school district bigger than L.A. Unified, which has fewer than 700,000 students.

The American Civil Liberties Union — which is suing New York police for alleged excessive force in schools — regularly obtains and reviews quarterly figures for that district’s school-based citations and arrests.

During the 2011-2012 academic year, the ACLU recently said, New York police issued 1,666 citations to students. By comparison, L.A. Unified school police issued more than 1,000 tickets in September and October of this year alone.

New York police made 882 arrests in schools during the 2011-2012 academic year. L.A. school police made 4,333 arrests over the course of three calendar years, from 2009 through 2011, according to data that the Center for Public Integrity reviewed.

More than 1,960, or 45 percent, of the Los Angeles arrests were of students 14 or younger.

The single biggest type of offense for which L.A. students were arrested was battery, including battery on school staff and police officers, said Cusick of Public Counsel. She said it is not uncommon for students to become emotional and struggle if they are grabbed during an encounter with police. First-time battery incidents, with no serious injury involved, Cusick said, are among the offenses that authorities could consider putting on a list for referral to prompt professional counseling rather than to court.  

For Groman, the case of an 11-year-old accused of battery on a teacher sums up flaws in the current court-referral system.

“I don’t condone any kind of physical violence against a teacher,” she said. “However, to send an 11-year-old boy to juvenile court, where he’s sitting in the waiting room with many more sophisticated youth, gang-related youth, it’s just not the place for an 11-year-old.”

Like many kids, Groman added, the 11-year-old’s day in court did not take place until 60 days after the incident — too late for a child to effectively make a connection to what he or she did two months ago.

“This young boy needed some therapy,” Groman said. “The family needed some counseling. Yet none of that was done because the case, instead of being handled at the school level, was referred to the juvenile-justice system, which does not move very fast at all.”

Alternative ideas

In September, a team of justice authorities from Clayton County, Ga., traveled to Los Angeles to talk to Groman and others about a protocol they follow for referring students to court. Clayton County has emerged as a model for reformers.

Until firm standards were set, Clayton County Chief Juvenile Court Judge Steven Teske said, more than 90 percent of referrals to his court came from schools.

Lt. Francisco Romero, former Clayton County school resource officer, accompanied Teske to L.A. Romero told the Center that he supported instituting a protocol after realizing that he had arrested more students  than any other officer in his county during one period of time.

“I never had any positive engagement with the kids. All they saw me as was an arresting machine,” Romero said. Some school staff resisted a formal protocol at first. But ultimately, Romero said, schools accepted it and Romero found he could focus on serious crimes. Kids grew to trust him. Teske testified at the recent congressional hearing that the protocol helped drive up graduation rates and reduce felonies.

Zipperman said that in Los Angeles, the citations his officers write don’t always lead to “punitive” action against a student. For many, he said, it’s a path to getting the counseling they need.

Hellen Carter, juvenile field services chief of the Los Angeles County Probation Department, praised Zipperman as a “tremendous problem solver.” But she said it still takes weeks to get kids processed and into counseling, which isn’t ideal. Schools could accomplish a lot more, she said, with more “teen courts” and mediation on campus. And school staff could benefit, she said, from training to distinguish between what is truly a serious incident and what is not.  

“We know that kids are going to do some dumb things,” Carter said. “And we want to give them the opportunity to make amends for what they’ve done, learn from what they’ve done, but also not put them in a position where it can literally destroy their future.”

Center for Public Integrity data editor David Donald contributed to this report.