Los Angeles school police to stop citing students for minor offenses

Move reflects growing research that shows handling minor offenses with police actions does not necessarily make campuses safer

Aug. 20--Michael Davis experienced firsthand the negative effects of campus discipline when he received a police citation for tardiness in middle school and later was removed from class for failing to wear the school uniform at Manual Arts High in South Los Angeles.

After years of fighting for change, Michael and others Tuesday celebrated the unveiling of a groundbreaking move by Los Angeles Unified school police to stop giving citations for fighting, petty theft and other minor offenses. Students instead will be referred to counseling and other programs.

"So often students are just thrown to the cops and put in handcuffs without getting to the root of their problems," said Michael, a 17-year-old senior. "This new policy is such an accomplishment and will definitely make a difference."

The decisive step back from punitive law enforcement actions reflects growing research that handling minor offenses with police actions does not necessarily make campuses safer, but often push struggling students to drop out and get in more serious trouble with the law.

The sweeping changes in the nation's second-largest school system come after years of pressure from community groups and intensified monitoring by the federal government over discriminatory school discipline practices. In a 2011 voluntary agreement with the U.S. Education Department, the district pledged to track and report discipline data and eliminate inequitable practices. Last year, the Los Angeles Board of Education directed school police to reduce their involvement in minor student offenses.

The broad backing for L.A. Unified's new approach was reflected by the school board members, administrators, school police, a teacher union leader, a Juvenile Court judge and community activists who attended the announcement at Manual Arts on Tuesday.

"We are about graduation, not incarceration," L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy told the crowd.

School Police Chief Steven Zipperman said major offenses posing serious and immediate threats to school safety, such as possession of weapons, still will be handled by L.A. school police. The district's force of more than 475 police and security officers make up the nation's largest independent school police department.

For lesser offenses, however, Zipperman said officers will use a new "graduated response" policy to determine, with school administrators, the most appropriate action without an arrest or a citation.

Considerations will include whether the student is younger than 12, is a first-time offender or can be effectively handled with a warning, "cooling off" period, a meeting with parents or alternative discipline practice such as restorative justice. That practice requires the misbehaving student to meet with the person harmed to apologize and resolve the conflict.

In most cases, possession of tobacco, theft of property less than $50 and trespassing will be referred to school administrators. Possession of alcohol or marijuana of less than an ounce, fighting and vandalism causing less than $400 in damage will be referred to either administrators or community programs such as the city-run YouthSource Centers for counseling and other services.

"Our students are safe right now, and nothing's changed," Zipperman said. "But we have a teachable moment here to provide opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes."

Community activists who have worked for seven years to reduce police involvement on Los Angeles campuses hailed the policy.

"This is a major breakthrough that will create some protections for students and move away from the kind of punishment culture we've had for too long," said Manuel Criollo of the Community Rights Campaign, a Los Angeles civil rights group.

National studies show that one arrest doubles a student's chance of dropping out of school, according to Ruth Cusick of the L.A. pro bono law firm Public Counsel. Another study found that Texas students who were suspended were far more likely to repeat a grade, drop out and have further run-ins with the juvenile justice system.

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