How Communities Teamed Up with Police, Courts and L.A. Leaders Over Truancy Tickets

Students at LA City Hall

Students with the Community Rights Campaign outside Los Angeles City Hall after the City Council voted 14-0 in February 2012 to amend the city's broken daytime curfew law.

What was going wrong? 

An excessive fine that low-income families cannot afford:  Ticketed students received fines of up to $250, which with penalties and fees could cost more than $800, just for one ticket.  Multiple tickets could build up to thousands of dollars.  Students who could not pay lost their driver’s licenses and received warrants that denied them access to jobs and opportunities that could help them move forward in life.

KPCC reported the story of a single mother with four children who works bagging groceries at an Albertsons store. "Her son faced a $250 fine: 'My god, I’m like I can’t even pay for that. I mean I’m barely making ends meet right now.' "  (KPCC: "LAPD Eases Daytime Curfew Enforcement on Teens," 4/15/11)

Deterring students from school and graduation: As part of a comprehensive campaign to reform the daytime curfew policy, through some 2,000 student surveys conducted by Community Rights Campaign, reviews of thousands of documents and data and literature, and the representation of more than 75 low-income students by Public Counsel attorneys and pro bonos, we found that tickets and police sweeps just made it less likely that students would show up for school.  Their parents could not afford to pay the excessive fines and being treated like criminals, frightened and humiliated students who were just trying to get an education.  State data also confirmed the policy failed students and schools, showing that in the same period of time that officers issued, 47,000 tickets, the truancy rate in LAUSD actually increased from 5% to 28%.

"There are students who are on their way to school and this is a deterrent for them to go to school," Councilman Mitch Englander told the Los Angeles Times. "So if they are running late at all, often times, they choose not to go at all because they are scared of getting that citation. So it makes no sense."  (LA Times: "Activists press council to ease truancy fines," 2/14/12)

More troubling, studies showed that involving students in the juvenile justice system made it more likely they would never come back to school: a first-time arrest in high school doubled the likelihood that a student would drop-out.  When students must appear in court, the likelihood of dropping out nearly quadruples.  

"[T]he current truancy law drafts young people into the world of police and courts even if they've committed no real crime," said a Daily News editorial (Daily News: "Truancy Crackdown Should Focus on Class, Not Court," 9/21/11)

African-American, Latino, and low-income students singled out in alarming numbers:  Data collected through Public Records Act requests showed the alarming truth that:  White youth who make up 13% of the student-age population received not a single ticket from the Los Angeles School Police Department.  While Black youth make up only 9.88% of the student-age population, they received 13% of the tickets; and Latino youth received 71.76%.  Students in wealthier neighbors who were late to school and traveling in cars with their parents didn’t get a citation because of an exception in the law related to adult supervision. While low-income students, dependent largely on public transportation, were regularly ticketed.

How students, parents and local leaders changed a failed system

LAPD steps up to lead reform: When Public Counsel and its partners brought evidence to the LAPD of the civil rights and educational harms caused by existing enforcement practices and demand changed, LAPD leadership stepped up to champion the reforms.  After months of meetings, in a directive to all officers issued in April of 2010, LAPD agreed to stop mass ticketing of students for truancy during the first hour of class and halted its daytime curfew sweeps, except when there was suspected criminal activity by youth in the school area.

Since the new police procedures went into effect, there has been a 51.8% drop in tickets issued between April and July 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.

Click here to read the LAPD Directive

Los Angeles School Police Department takes action to fix its practices:  Next, Public Counsel, in partnership with Dignity in Schools-Los Angeles, helped negotiate and draft a similar directive with the Los Angeles School Police.  On October 14, 2011, the LASPD issued a directive, which put a stop to sweeps within the first 90 minutes of school and directs officers generally not to ticket students trying to get to school, even if tardy.

Click here to read the LASPD Directive

Police and courts are not the answer to school attendance: Supervising Judge Michael Nash announces visionary court reforms.  In fall of 2010, supervising juvenile court judge Michael Nash convened the County-wide School Attendance Task Force (SATF).  After more than a year of monthly meetings and a review of literature and best practices, with help from Public Counsel and other members of the SATF, a 63-page report with findings and recommendations for comprehensive reform was issued.  The report focuses on integrating county-wide attendance improvement practices and prioritizing school- and community-based services that are proven to improve attendance and increase graduation rates over arrests and court time, which push students out of school. 

Click here to read the school attendance report

"The court should be a last resort and not a first resort," Judge Nash told radio station KPCC. "Because we certainly haven't been very successful thus far. We're having thousands of kids going to court every year wasting their time and their families’ time for us to give them a fine that most of them can't pay. It makes no sense. The schools should be working with the kids and the families to make the school a place they want to go's a community issue." (KPCC: "Working to Solve LA's Truancy Problem as a Community," 2/2/12).

On January 10, 2012, after hearing concerns and receiving recommendations for reform from Public Counsel attorneys, students, and others, Judge Nash issued sweeping changes to existing court practices, eliminating fines for curfew citations and placing an emphasis on Court-ordered services and attendance plans to address the root causes of truancy. 

Click here to read the Court guidelines.

Los Angeles Unified School Board Calls for Change:  On January 18, 2012, the LAUSD Board joined in the call for reform, passing a resolution calling for amendment to LAMC 45.04 and for the City Council to pass the reforms authored by Councilmember Tony Cardenas and sponsored by Public Counsel, Community Rights Campaign, and the ACLU-SC.

Click here to read the LAUSD School Board Resolution

City Council Unanimously Amends the Law: After months of conversations with city council members, hearing testimony and receiving letters in support from hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and civil rights lawyers, as well as the Supervising Juvenile Court judge, the LAPD, and Los Angeles School Board President, on February 13, 2012, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed historic changes to the municipal code, which require, among other things, that Court ordered school and community-based services that address the root causes of truancy replace hefty fines for first and second time violations. For third and subsequent violations, any fine is discretionary on the part of the Court and the total fine that any individual student can receive for all curfew tickets is capped at $20.  Students traveling on their way to school, regardless of whether they are running late, shall not receive a ticket.  The new law authored by City Councilmember Tony Cardenas applies to all police agencies working in Los Angeles.

As Public Counsel’s Laura Faer told the Associated Press, “This is a common sense solution. . . Students won’t be put on the jailhouse track.”

Click here to read the new law.

What's next?

Schools and parents, not police and courts, are the real solution to truancy.  With its partners, Public Counsel is now working to monitor the implementation of the historic truancy reforms in Los Angeles.  The move away from criminalization and court time for students and toward services and supports that are shown to help improve attendance and graduation rates, is a strong step in the right direction.

In summer 2012, in partnership with volunteer attorneys, Public Counsel plans to represent dozens of students facing truancy tickets to help ensure that the new law and Court policies are enforced properly, the LAPD and LASPD directives are carried out, and that students struggling with truancy get research-based services to help improve attendance and increase their likelihood of graduation.

In addition, Public Counsel staff continue to work hard to ensure implementation of the recommended reforms in the School Attendance Task Force report, which call for more resources and supports for children struggling to get to school.   We will also help ensure that the innovative partnership between Los Angeles City Council and Los Angeles Unified School District to create between 11-13 Worksource Centers that target resources, school counselors, and wrap-around services at our most at-risk students becomes a reality.