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A school bus drives by on Oct. 8, 2008 in Los Angeles.
With the first day of school only a few weeks away, the head of the largest school police force in the country is reassessing the Los Angeles Unified School District’s school ticketing policies for the new academic year.
On a recent summer afternoon, L.A. School Police Chief Steven Zipperman poured over neat stacks of Excel spreadsheets arrayed across his desk.
The chief is under pressure to ease up on ticketing thousands of students, especially after budget cuts closed L.A. County’s informal juvenile traffic courts last month. That’s why, over summer break, he’s collaborating with school officials and local student rights advocacy groups to shrink the number of citations issued to students and reduce overall court referrals.
Students can get citations for activities including jaywalking, skipping school, vandalism, or carrying cigarettes. The most popular violation: fighting.
In the last three years, L.A. Unified police issued nearly 34,000 tickets to students between 10 and 18 years old. More than 40 percent of those tickets went to kids who were 14 or younger.
Zipperman said the statistics can sound startling, but considering there are about 670,000 students enrolled in the district, they’re fairly low.
“It comes down to about 1.2 percent of the total student body,” he said. “I would say that’s not a high number at all.”
On average, LAUSD's school police issue about 30 tickets a day. In contrast, New York City’s school cops average six tickets a day. The American Civil Liberties Union is suing that department for alleged excessive force.
In the new academic year, school officials are considering eliminating citations for truancy, tobacco possession and fighting. The idea is to send these kids to see a counselor, not a judge.
That is bound to have a more profound effect on students, according to Deborah Duardo, director of pupil services for LA Unified.
“When kids were ticketed at school and sent to court, basically they were missing more school, their parents had to miss work and it created a pathway for them to get into the juvenile court system,” she said.
Beginning in the new school year, pupil services and attendance counselors spread out over 13 locations across the school district will handle all truancy cases.
Zipperman said the goal is that before long, these counselors will also take on the kids who get in trouble for tobacco possession or fisticuffs in school.
But Duardo said that’s only in the “talk” phase. Over the next three months, counselors will start with truant students. “We want to see what that caseload is like, and to see if this model is going to be successful before we take on these minor infractions,” he continued.
Until then, Zipperman said L.A. Unified will handle violations through school counselors or disciplinary deans.
The Federal Education Department’s Civil Rights Division has monitored L.A. Unified for some time. It became involved because of complaints that the district suspends and expels black students at disproportionately high rates.
Last year, the division started to collect data from school districts across the country to determine how many students they refer to law enforcement. L.A. Unified didn’t submit any of these records.
Still, Russlynn Ali, the federal Education Department’s top civil rights official says her team has found some disturbing trends.
Ali said across multiple grades and in multiple schools African American students are far more likely to be punished “harder and more frequently for the very same offense than their white counterpart.”
That’s the case in L.A. Unified. Its citations are concentrated in more than a dozen schools where most students are African American or Latino, and where school police tend to maintain a heavier presence.
In his office, the Chief Zipperman bristles at the idea that his officers discriminate against minority students.
“Our goal, when it comes to any incident that occurs on campus is that an administrator feels they can handle, allow them to handle.” He thinks for a moment, then adds, “Can we do better? Yes. We can always improve and find better ways of handling some of these issues.”
He knows that as school districts try to figure out the role of police officers on campus, many observers are watching what L.A. Unified will do. But, the school police chief adds, good solutions can come from anywhere – he’s open to suggestions.