"One, we are the people. Two, a little bit louder. Three, we want justice. Four, for all students."
Dressed in green graduation caps and gowns, and orange jumpsuits, they chanted, they beat a big drum, and participated in a press conference; then they went into Monday's special session of the L.A. City Council's Public Safety Commitee and made their official public testimony.
For many it was their first time speaking to government officials and a lesson in civics and public engagement.
More than 100 students as well as parents and teachers gathered at the Van Nuys Civic Center to rally in support of a measure that aims to improve how Los Angeles deals with its truant youth. The measure, proposed by L.A. City Councilmember Tony Cardenas, would institute a number of changes to the city's daytime curfew law so as to provide a more holistic approach to student attendance problems that addresses root-causes of truancy and avoids fines.
On Monday, after students and community members presented dozens of personal anecdotes and endorsements, the measure passed through committee; it will go be before the City Council for a vote next Wednesday.
Nabil Romero, 18, spoke before the committee and to the press prior to the meeting. An organizer with Community Rights Campaign, Romero is now a freshman at West Los Angeles College studying biochemistry in hopes of becoming a plastic surgeon, but a year ago he was cuffed, searched and ticketed for being late to school.
In March 2011, Romero was a senior at Edward Roybal Learning Center and on his way to school by bus because his mother couldn't take him. Two bus rides — each 45 minutes long — finally got him to class an hour late at 9:15 a.m. As he approached the entrance, police officers handcuffed and searched him. Another hour later he was free to go in to class. At the time 17-year-old Romero then missed more school, and his single mom missed work, when they had to go court.
"My mom was humiliated, she thought it was her fault" for not driving, Romero said. He had to pay $350 after he was found guilty of not being in class. "We started cutting back on food expenses, clothes expenses, shoes, this was all my fault for not being in class."
Reform backers have argued for years that the current law criminalizes students for being out of class when they often have a good reason. Instead they are handcuffed, driven around in the back of a squad car and humiliated.
"This is a common sense solution," said Mitch Englander, the chair of the public safety committee. "We need kids in classrooms, not courtrooms."
Teachers at Roosevelt High School, University High School, and Manual Arts Senior High School planned field trips to the meeting, arranging buses for students. Teachers and students from other schools, including Central High School and Animo Locke Charter High School #3, also came. In all, about 160 people showed up to the meeting.
"All too often students are affected by laws but they don't even see the faces of the people that make [them], and all too often our policymakers don't hear the voices of students taken into consideration as they make laws," said Andrew Terranova, who teaches at University High School and brought about 70 of his students with him. He has taught at LAUSD for eight years.
"For me, as a high school teacher, this law has been an abject failure," Terranova said. "It hasn't increased attendance at all. In fact, it's had the opposite effect. Many times I've asked students, 'Well, Joey, why were you absent yesterday?' And Joey will say, 'Mister, I was on my way, but I missed the connecting bus, and I turned around and went home. My mom can't afford to take another day off. My sister got a ticket already at court. My mom doesn't have sick days.'"
Tickets with court fees tacked on can sometimes reach up to $800, Cardenas said. The proposed measure would allow for a fee on the third citation, but does not require one, and also looks at capping the overall fine.
Supporters of the measure say schools and the community should be the ones addressing attendance problems not the police and courts. With that in mind, LAUSD is working with the city's Community Development Department to launch up to 13 Youth WorkSource Centers to serve as outreach centers for truant youths and those at risk for dropping out, or who have dropped out of school. A number of other efforts have also been adopted by the juvenile court system, a county task force, and law enforcement.
"Instead of having cops intervene, we have counselors," Romero said. "Find out reasons why people are late, why they are not in school."
At Monday's drizzly rally Cardenas met with students and community members before marching with them to a covered area for a press conference. He told the students that at least for that morning they had no reason to fear: "I'm going to assure you there will be no tickets coming."