February 24th, 2012

L.A. agrees to rolls back fines as high as $1,000 for truancy, tardiness

The Los Angeles City Council has agreed to roll back the stiff fines charged to truant and tardy students and pursue a less punitive approach.

Under the city’s current law, students showing up late for school in Los Angeles can find themselves handcuffed, fingerprinted and charged from $250 to more than $1,000 for the offense. They would have to appear in court with a parent. Some students, running late, just decided to stay home instead.

Protests from families and from civil rights groups, who noted the disparate effect on African-American and Latino students, led the council to give preliminary approval this week to a measure relaxing those stiff penalties, which were part of a nine-year-old daytime curfew law. Instead of fines, the first two offenses would lead to counseling to help students turn around their attendance problems.

“Young people,” this is not a permission slip to be late or skip school,” Councilman Tony Cardenas said at Wednesday’s hearing. “But instead of purely punishing you, like the old system, we will be there for you.”

Pressure from parents, students and civil rights groups led to a commitment from the L.A. Police Department last year to stop its morning truancy and tardiness sweeps. But the tactics persisted. An article by The Center for Public Integrity gave this account of what happened to Juan Carlos Amezcua, 15, in  November.

Amezcua and his cousin, also 15, were emerging from a market near their school in Los Angeles’ tough Boyle Heights neighborhood when school  officers stopped the teens, handcuffed and searched them. When Amezcua said the two were going to school and added, “You can’t do this,” an officer used profanity and told him to “shut … up or else I’ll slap you in the face,” according to the complaint filed Feb. 3.

One of officers took Amezcua’s baseball cap off and once he was in the car threw it in his face, the complaint alleges. And instead of driving directly into the closest school lot, the complaint says, the officers circled the campus and sped up at each turn, causing the handcuffed students, who were not wearing seatbelts, to slide against the car doors and for one of them to strike his head against the car window.

The students were taken into Roosevelt High School and remained in handcuffs while officers wrote them tickets for being truant at 8 a.m., Amezcua said. By the time they were released, he said, only 10 minutes were left of his second period class.

The story also reported on the racial and ethnic disparities in enforcement:

In 2010, the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union and a local group, the Labor Community Strategy Center, disclosed city and school police data showing that 88 percent of more than 47,000 daytime curfew tickets issued in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2009 went to Latino or black students. Together, these students are 77 percent of the student population.

The Center created maps showing that ticketing was concentrated around lower-income Latino and black neighborhood schools. The data also indicated that not one of the more than 13,000 students ticketed during those years by the Los Angeles School Police was identified as white, although whites are 13 percent of that district’s population.

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