By Rick Orlov, LA Daily News Staff Writer from the Contra Costa Times | http://bit.ly/plFYe5
9/26/2011 01:00:00 AM PDT - City officials are taking a new look at a school truancy crackdown effort that some fear has become simply a harassment campaign against kids in minority and poor neighborhoods.
The city has had a daytime curfew policy in place since 1995, allowing police officers to write tickets to juveniles who are not in class during school hours.
But community groups found the tickets were being issued arbitrarily to kids even if they were just a little late for class, and they were being given disproportionately to youths in poor and minority neighborhoods.
"What it means is students miss more classes because they have to go to court and their parents are forced to pay the fines that are $250," said City Councilman Tony Cardenas, who has been working to change the policy. "And it is something that could stick with a kid their entire life."
Community activists first began looking into the issue in 2006 when they were trying to figure out why so many public transit buses, especially those with routes near schools, were chronically running late.
"As we talked with passengers, they told us it was because so many students were being stopped and given tickets for not being in school," said Ashley Franklin, an organizer with the Community Rights Foundation.
"After we started looking into it and working with the LAUSD and the LAPD, we found that most of these tickets were being given to minority students and in poorer areas of the city."
Now, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the LAPD and the city are working to look at how the law is being enforced and the impact it has on the city's schools and the families of the students.
Cardenas, who has worked on the issue for two years, has proposed changes, which include prohibiting the issuance of tickets to students who are late in getting to school or have other reasons for not being in the classroom.
He has asked the LAPD to report to the City Council Public Safety Committee in two months with its formal recommendation.
The LAPD, under Police Chief Charlie Beck, already instituted a new policy in April similar to what Cardenas is seeking to make a permanent part of city code. It instructs officers to not cite students who have been delayed but are on their way to school.
Also, the LAPD will no longer conduct truancy sweeps during the first hour of school when students could be caught up in public transit problems.
LAUSD police Chief Steve Zipperman said his agency is considering a similar policy for its 340 officers.
"We are looking at it right now and want to make sure we have something with clear guidelines for our officers," Zipperman said. "We recognize that when we write citations, it is the family that has to go to court and pay the citations.
"We know that can create a hardship when our goal is to get kids in schools. What we are looking for is something that is more strategic in nature that gives our officers some leeway."
Zipperman said the policy being studied will still give officers the power to write tickets, but under clear circumstances.
Under the current city law, any minor out on the streets during normal school hours could be cited by officers.
Cardenas and members of the Community Rights Foundation heard complaints that officers staked out certain areas of the city and would give citations to students who were late to class.
In the period between 2004 and 2009, the Community Rights Foundation and others said 47,000 citations were issued.
Determining who is a truant is both easy - state law says they are absent three days in a row without an excuse - and difficult to determine.
LAUSD officials, in their most recent statistics from 2010, estimate 15 percent of its 670,000 students are truant on any given day.
And that translates into lost money for the district because of state funding formulas based on average daily attendance.
The most recent district figures estimate losses of $3 million a year because of students with unexcused absences.
LAUSD school board president Monica Garcia said she hopes the changes in the truancy laws will help send a message to students to not fear coming back to school because of potential tickets.
"We want them to feel welcomed and not punished," Garcia said.
The district, the city and the county have spent millions of dollars in trying to combat truancy.
Judge Michael Nash, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court Juvenile Division, created a special task force to look at the issue and explore ways truancy can be reduced.
Part of the recommendations being adopted by the city were developed by the Nash task force, which brings together law enforcement and education officials who study different approaches from around the country.
Laura Faer, an attorney with the public-interest law firm Public Counsel, who has been working on the issue, said it is important to not punish young people who are trying to get to school and have problems.
"We are getting all these calls from kids and their families who were struggling to get to school and then they would get a ticket and become part of the justice system," Faer said.
"We went on the buses and found all these buses that were late or slow and the kids were getting tickets even though they were trying to go to school. Police officers would be waiting outside the buses and giving the kids tickets."
"The tragedy is that these are kids in low performing schools and from poorer families that can't afford these tickets," Faer said. "What's important about what the city is doing is that it puts a formal policy in place, one that can't be changed by whoever is chief of the Police Department."