If there’s one thing you can count on Maceo Bradley to do, it’s get to school on time. The 17-year-old Locke High School senior makes the 10-minute walk to school every morning from his family’s home in the Watts neighborhood of south Los Angeles.
Bradley says he’s only arrived at school after the bell rang three times in his high-school career, and when he woke up at 7:30 a.m. on a January morning last year, he certainly didn’t expect that day to be number four.
“I was actually doing really good on time,” Bradley remembers.
But something important was happening that day. He and other classmates were selling coupon cards to raise money for a college tour, and if Bradley didn’t turn in his remaining cards when he got to school, he wouldn’t be able to go on the trip.
After finally getting a hold of his mom on the phone, Bradley found the cards and made his way to school 20-minutes late. Once on campus, an unexpected visitor was there to greet him – a uniformed police officer ready to write him a $250 truancy ticket. As Bradley would discover later, officers routinely waited in the school’s office to hand out tickets to latecomers.
Between 2005 and 2009, the LAPD and Los Angeles Schools Police Department together ticketed some 47,000 students under the city’s daytime curfew law that imposed $250 fines on youth under the age of 18 found to be outside of school grounds during class, according to a student-attendance task force led by LA’s top juvenile court judge, Michael Nash. But the number of students missing school jumped from 5 percent to more than 28 percent in that same span, according to the California Department of Education.
The 17-year-old law was finally amended in February following a year-long review by Nash’s group, which called on City Council to amend the daytime curfew ordinance to stop monetarily punishing students for being late to school.
That amendment, which was introduced by Councilman Tony Cardenas last September with wide community support, including the LA Unified School District, LAPD and Los Angeles Schools Police, passed with unanimous support from the council.
The new ordinance doesn’t eliminate fines completely, but a student would only receive a $20 fine on their third curfew violation. On a student’s first offense, they would have to complete 20 hours of community service over a 60-day period. Officers are also no longer allowed to ticket any student within three blocks of their school up to an hour after the bell rings.
Judge Nash told the council that his group’s recommendations took a more holistic approach that would help more students attend school.
“We think that our policy and this ordinance is designed to make school attendance a student issue, a family issue, a school issue and a community issue, and not a criminal issue,” Nash said.
Nash’s group, which also included officials from the school district, law enforcement and City Hall, among others, noted several major problems with the way the old law was enforced.
For starters, after a student received a ticket, they also had to appear in Juvenile Court, forcing them to miss at least one more day of school.
School police also disproportionately targeted African-American and Latino students. During that same four-year period, those two groups received nearly 88 percent of all tickets issued, despite making up less than 78 percent of the student population. The highest number of citations was issued in and around schools in South Los Angeles, such as Locke High School.
Not a single white student was ticketed by school police between 2005 and 2009.
Crucially, the report found the law did nothing to help students facing legitimate obstacles in getting to school such as poor transportation, lack of food and clothing and safe access, while only punishing tardiness.
Bradley, who is African-American, discovered all of these facts for himself when he and other members of a youth writing collective known as Watts Youth Voices, spoke with the Community Rights Campaign early last year after becoming determined to fight for change.
The Community Rights Campaign, part of LA’s Labor and Community Strategy Center, had already been campaigning to eliminate truancy fines. Organizers there were so involved that Nash recruited them to be a part of his advisory group.
Over the next year, Bradley worked with one of the center’s organizers, Patrisse Cullors, to educate his fellow Locke students about their rights when confronted by police. Bradley and other student activists made class presentations and routinely posted on the group’s Facebook page.
Cullors has been organizing with the center for 12 years and started work on her first campaign with the group’s Bus Riders Union when she was only 17-years-old. She said the daytime curfew law was unfair because it ignored important issues affecting student access to school, especially kids in low-income families.
Cullors identified public transportation as a key area of concern, particularly for students who travel long distances by bus to attend better schools outside of their neighborhood.
“You have all these students … young children who are getting on the bus and have to wake up at 5 a.m,” she said.
Cullors said many buses fill up quickly, forcing the students to wait for the next one. She is pushing for LA's Metro to allocate more buses for underserved communities that rely on public transportation.
She called on transportation officials to decide, "Okay we should put three buses out here because we know it’s going to be full of students.”
When asked what type of services it provides for students, Anna Chen of Metro Public Relations pointed to the agency’s “School Tripper” program, which she said exists to provide extra buses to students during peak hours. These buses are supplied based on the level of demand and are contingent upon available resources and the degree to which they would affect the travel time of other passengers.
Cullors and Bradley both said they knew of many students who are late in the mornings because they have to take their younger siblings to school first.
Another successful model in Nash’s report cited Alhambra Unified School District. The district of almost 19,000 students uses a comprehensive approach that brings together a wide range of community partners including mental health services, law enforcement and the courts, among others.
The program is the result of a four-year, $7 million US Department of Education grant awarded to the district in 2008, and it’s had a staggering effect on attendance among Alhambra’s predominantly low-income Asian and Latino population.
In the 2008-2009 school year, 29 percent of Alhambra Unified’s students weren’t showing up to school consistently – over a third higher than in LA County, according to the report. In approximately 18 months that number fell by a whopping 61 percent.
The initiative is the brainchild of Alhambra Unified’s Director of Student Services, Laurel Bear, who credits her time as head coach for both the boys and girls cross-country and track teams at San Gabriel High School in the mid-1980s with giving her the experience and vision to spearhead such an effort.
“With those kids that really had a difficult time making good decisions … we needed to help them find a passion,” Bear said.
As part of the program, a team of about 150 school counselors, psychologists and social workers consult students at every campus in the district. Bear said about 1,600 students currently receive some form of assistance.
Additionally, each school holds mandatory mental health team meetings where teachers and administrators work together to identify student behavior that raises a red flag based on referrals from either the student themselves, or a parent, friend, teacher, police officer, or someone else within the community.
That board then refers the student to the partner agency best suited to help the problem.
Bear said the ultimate goal of the program is not to punish students, but to ask, “What do you need from us to be successful?
The district also engages directly with parents by offering them multi-lingual workshops on how to deal with matters as basic as understanding the school system, to others as nuanced as substance abuse, cyber-bullying, and gay and transgender awareness and support.
Alhambra does have monetary penalties on the books for students who choose not to attend school, but Bear said they are rarely enforced and would never be imposed without exhausting all other options to help that student stay in school on a regular basis.
“We’re not going to arbitrarily ticket that child for the first time they oversleep,” Bear said. “I would be appalled if that were our policy.”
However, Bear said monetary fines can have an effect on students when used as a last resort, but she said they must be used “discreetly and responsibly.”
As for Bradley, he says he’s hoping to attend either Xavier University or USC in the fall, but he’ll continue fighting to eliminate fines once and for all.
“They don’t help the problem,” he says.