By Manuel Criollo and Cinthia Gonzalez
Do you remember ever being late to school or skipping class? Your teacher might have kept you after school to make up for it, or maybe you were sent to the office for a talk with the principal or guidance counselor. Not anymore.
Today, police detain and ticket youth under age 18 who are not in class at the start of the school day. Just blocks from campus””or even on school grounds””students could be slapped with a $240 ticket if they are running late under the L.A. daytime curfew law. For thousands of L.A. public school students, it is a lesson they shouldn’t have to learn.
Last April, even the LAPD came to understand just how unfair and ineffective their ticketing of tardy students is because of a 10-year effort by the Community Rights Campaign, working with ACLU, Public Counsel and student advocates. We learned that between 2004 and 2009, the LAPD and school police had issued 47,000 tickets to students for violating the daytime curfew law. Of those tickets, 88 percent were issued to black and Latino students, although together they are just 74 percent of L.A.’s students.
The financial burden on students and their families is huge, and the time they spend at mandatory court appearances is time lost from school and from parents’ jobs. Worst of all, the daytime curfew has had no measurable impact on improving school attendance and there’s good reason to believe it only discourages students from wanting to be in school.
The LAPD changed its policy of enforcing the daytime curfew, which prohibits students from being off campus when school is in session. It no longer conducts “truancy sweeps” to issue tickets during the first hour of school. That should give tardy students more breathing space and will reduce the burden on families that indiscriminate ticketing creates. But the new police policy isn’t sufficient. We need to change the law that authorized the truancy sweeps in the first place. Municipal Code 45.04, the daytime curfew law that was passed in 1995, is still in effect.
City Councilman Tony Cardenas last week introduced an amendment to the daytime curfew law that would change it to reflect the LAPD’s new policy. He’s being backed up by former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, now a council member. They rightly argue that truancy tickets are a waste of money, time and resources for parents, students and the city.
Criminalizing student absences from school should have no place in the Municipal Code, and the Cardenas amendment is a firm step in the right direction. Student truancy is a problem with many roots and they should all be addressed with educational””not criminal justice””solutions. Students miss school because of problems at home as well as problems in their classrooms, but penalizing them is never going to make them enthusiastic about attending school and learning.
Truancy tickets and other forms of harsh and ineffective school discipline are on the rise in California and across the country, and to call attention to this problem, the advocacy group Dignity in Schools is holding a national week of action Oct 1-7 in 25 U.S. cities, including Los Angeles.
During the week of action, we will be highlighting how these extreme approaches to school discipline aren’t working. With the rate of high school graduation dismally low, especially for black and Latino students, we must make schools a place where young people are eager to go every morning without fear of violating the law.
Cinthia Gonzalez, 17, is a senior at Roosevelt High School and member of the Community Rights Campaign. Manuel Criollo is director of organizing at the Community Rights Campaign.