News Clips

February 10, 2012

iWatch News: Los Angeles moves haltingly toward ending fines for truancy

iWatch News | Susan Ferriss

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 Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to amend the city’s daytime-curfew ordinance and drop large monetary fines for truant students, in response to recent tensions over aggressive police enforcement of student attendance policies. 

Teens in caps and gowns gathered to support the proposals, which have helped spur a burgeoning national debate over the impact of daytime curfews to reduce truancy. Los Angeles’ nine-year-old law included potential penalties of $250 for each count of tardiness or truancy.

Once imposed, the penalties were actually much higher once extra court and other costs were added on, and the sanctions required students to miss school and parents to miss work so they could appear in court to answer accusations.

Students complained of police sweeps right outside inner-city high schools that led to thousands of teens being ticketed — and some of them handcuffed — even if they were only minutes late. Council members Wednesday eliminated the $250 fines, instead opting to require counseling or proof of an attendance-improvement plan in response for the first two offenses.

“The City Council has taken a historic step forward. With the passage of this motion, schools not police are now the first line of defense for attendance,” said Laura Faer, education rights director of Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm in Los Angeles. “Students will no longer be placed on the jailhouse track just because their bus was late, they helped a little sister get to school, or they were struggling with a mental health problem.”

Public Counsel helped organize a campaign to change the curfew law.

For a third offense, students could still get a basic penalty of $20. But supporters of the amendments urged authorities to focus on beefing up counseling services to address root causes of tardiness to school or truancy. Many students depend on public transportation and have been ticketed because the buses they ride were late.

The amendments also prohibit police enforcement of the curfew during the first hour of school and near school buildings. Officers will now have to talk to students they do stop about why the teens are not in school, and avoid ticketing them if students are actually making an effort to get to classes.

Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash in January announced that he was instructing court officers not to impose daytime curfew fines from any jurisdiction in the county.  Nash told the Center for Public Integrity he thought the fines were “onerous,” that many students were afraid to tell parents about them and that youngsters often failed to pay them. The court is now ordering students to counseling.