Los Angeles school board cracks down on suspensions for minor infractions

Amid national debate, new 'bill of rights' seeks to clarify police role in school discipline

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Amid a deepening debate over appropriate school discipline, board members of the nation's second largest school district — Los Angeles Unified — took bold steps this week sure to be noticed nationally.

They voted to prohibit out-of-school suspensions of students based on "willful defiance,” a vague label, critics say, that’s become far too handy a vehicle for ejecting students rather than helping them settle down and improve academic performance. The board members also voted to implement a sweeping review and new standards for the district’s sizable police force, which has a history of aggressive ticketing of students.

The landmark provisions are contained in a “School Climate Bill of Rights” the school board adopted in a 5-2 vote on Tuesday.

Los Angeles Unified is the nation’s second largest school district, and with 300-plus police officers, it has the country’s largest school police force. It is the first school district in California to bar “willful defiance” suspensions. These suspensions — and school police citations for more serious criminal allegations — have fallen heavily on black and Latino students in neighborhoods struggling with high dropout rates.  

A “willful defiance” suspension can stem from a student violating dress codes to lashing out with crude behavior or language, or refusing to be quiet or perform assigned work.

Separately, hundreds of L.A. Unified students, many of them middle-school students, have also been given school-police citations each month for engaging in physical fights or other “disturbing the peace” charges or for committing other infractions. In some cases, teachers or school administrators have requested that students receive tickets; in other cases, police officers have made the decision.

The new L.A. Unified policy aimed at curbing ticketing and arrests by school police stems from brewing controversy that the Center for Public Integrity has reported on over the last year.

The board’s new mandate strengthens existing requirements that L.A. Unified’s schools embrace other practices, including “positive behavior intervention” methods and “restorative justice” to improve student behavior and resolve disputes among students and teachers. The new order ensures that students can’t be sent home for defiance, but they can be removed from a class and kept at school.

Critics of student suspensions argue that children who act out in class are often are having trouble learning or are troubled by family crises. Kids only fall further behind and more detached from school when they languish at home for days or hit the streets unsupervised, they say. 

Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said her organization supports the new policy’s goals and supports keeping kids in school. But her members are worried about how they’re going carry out their orders without more adult supervisors inside L.A. Unified’s crowded, understaffed schools.

“The district needs to do more than enact a policy,” Perez said. “The first recommendation we are making is an increase in the number of assistant principals and counselors.”

A middle school, she said, can’t even get a second counselor unless it has more than 891 students. She also said that teachers’ contracts don’t allow them to supervise students pulled out of classrooms.

California, as a state, could follow Los Angeles’ lead in ending suspensions for defiance and setting limits on police involvement in discipline matters. 

L.A. Unified’s policy mirrors a bill in California’s legislature that would sharply limit the ability of schools statewide to issue out-of-schools suspensions simply for defiance. During the 2011-2012 school year, state data shows, nearly half of more than 700,000 student suspensions in the state were for defiance.

Golden State legislators are considering another bill that would require all schools to set standards for the role of school police and strive to keep police out of routine disciplinary matters. Both bills have already passed through critical first committees.

“I’m a social worker by profession, and we at the Los Angeles Unified School District support the school police. But we cannot have a system that is just punitive and focuses on ‘the gotcha,’ “ L.A. Unified district board president Monica Garcia told the Center.  

Garcia sponsored the “bill of rights” because she thought suspensions and aggressive use of school police in some schools was backfiring and failing to improve student behavior and achievement rates.

“What I expect to happen now is more graduation in Los Angeles,” Garcia said. She said L.A. Unified has an opportunity to show national leadership in efforts to stop a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The board’s new policy declares that: “Studies indicate that suspension does not often result in positive behavior conditioning and furthermore can instead intensify misbehavior by increasing shame, alienation, and rejection amongst students.”

The text of the policy also says: “A study from Texas found that students are five times more likely to drop out, six times more likely to repeat a grade, and three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile-justice system if suspended.”

Garcia said that juvenile-court judges in Los Angeles also appealed to her in recent years to change practices that were leading to increasing numbers of court citations of students.

The judges said that too many students were being sent into the criminal justice system for minor offenses they felt should be handled at school, immediately, rather than with court appearances weeks or even months later.

Last year, the Center analyzed L.A. Unified’s school-police citations and produced reports in collaboration with KPCC radio in Southern California and KQED The California Report.

The analysis found that between 2009 and the end of 2011, L.A. Unified school police were issuing, at times, more than 1,000 court citations a month to students for a range of violations, including tardiness, graffiti, pot or cigarette possession and, especially, for allegations of “disturbing the peace.” The disturbing-the-peace charges stemmed from accusations of a student getting into fisticuffs, threatening to fight or using challenging language.

More than 40 percent of all tickets issued by police during this period were going to students younger than 15. And the numbers of citations issued in Los Angeles far exceeded the tickets that school police were handing out in New York City, a bigger district, the Center found.

A more recent analysis by the Center showed that tickets issued in L.A. Unified have fallen dramatically, the result of pressure from community activists, juvenile-court judges and news reports disclosing how the volume of tickets had ballooned.  

But tickets that L.A. Unified school police still hand out to students for disturbing the peace, especially, remain highly concentrated in certain middle schools.

Students at Markham Middle School received more tickets during this time — 47 — than any other school in the district. Forty-one tickets were for fighting, or disturbing the peace. Students at the Watts Learning Center Charter Middle School got the next highest batch of tickets, with 13 out of 33 for fighting. Banning High School was third, with 32 tickets.

The Center’s latest analysis found that between last November and March of this year, about half of all the 1,590 tickets issued went to children 14 and younger. 

More 13-year-olds — almost all of them black or Latino — received tickets than 16 or 17-year-olds. Black students, 10 percent of district enrollment, received more than 37 percent of disturbing-the-peace tickets. And 56 percent of black students cited for that infraction were between 11 and 14 years of age.

Manuel Criollo, a community organizer with the Labor-Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, has spent several years working with students, parents, district officials and school police to embrace alternatives to police citations. Starting last summer, school police began referring ticketed students to Los Angeles County Probation Department officials, who say they’re trying to keep kids out of court and instead send as many as they can first to community-based counseling services.

But Criollo’s group has been pushing for explicit, written district policies designed to roll back ticketing even more and set strict limits on police involvement in disciplinary matters and minor offenses.

The group has long complained about “racial patterns” and unfair ticketing practices, and asserted that some police officers’ attitudes have spoiled students’ relations with law enforcement and teachers. The Labor-Community Strategy Center drew attention to and helped end early-morning sweeps that officers were doing around schools in low-income neighborhoods in recent years; officers would nab students, search them and issue tickets with hefty dollar fines to kids` who were even minutes late.   

Criollo said the board’s new policy is a “strong mandate” for district officials to sit down and hammer out new police policies they promised they would do last year. “It’s the culmination of a lot of what community groups have been fighting for,” Criollo said of the policy.

The “bill of rights” adopted this week orders the district to “review and evaluate” all current school policies, practices and training “relating to the equitable treatment of students.”

It also orders the district to “review the data on the use of school-based citations and arrests and identify and remedy frequent use at individual school sites.”

L.A. Unified School Police Department Chief Steve Zipperman did not oppose the policy, and Garcia consulted with him when it was drafted. L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy publicly supported the new policy, and said it was aimed at stopping “early criminalization” of students for “frivolous” matters.