ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
A student on his way to school walks past a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school, in Los Angeles, California on Feb. 13, 2009.
Nobody in the system thinks ticketing 10-year-old students is the right thing to do.
"I can tell you from about 38 years in the business that once kids get in the system it’s very difficult to get out," said Hellen Carter, head of L.A. County probation and part of the School-based Arrest Reform Partnership, a group that includes the school police chief, school administrators, judges and parents.
Together, the two groups are trying to come up with a protocol on when to arrest students, when to give them tickets, and when to avoid the justice system entirely and refer them to social services.
"We know that kids are going to do some dumb things," said Carter. "And we want to give them an opportunity to make amends for what they’ve done, learn from what they’ve done, but also not put them in a position where it can literally destroy their future."
Last spring, L.A. Unified released arrest and citations numbers for the first time. What they revealed was alarming. Kids had been issued more than 10,000 citations in a year, more than any other district in the country. Minorities and middle schoolers got more tickets than older kids and white students.
Those statistics caught the attention of federal civil rights officials and LAUSD started looking inward. Judge Donna Quigley Groman is among those involved in drafting new guidelines.
"We’re also working with L.A. Unified…to come up with a plan to select offenses," said Groman. "And to see what other mechanism can be used to divert these cases and not send them further into the juvenile justice system."
Some offenses they're looking at include minor fights and possession of cigarettes. Her concern is that kids who are sent to court are more likely to drop out or commit more serious crimes.
"I just don’t see it as being the most appropriate setting to address behavioral problems that occur in school," said Groman.
Until July, students who were ticketed had to go court. If they didn’t show up, it became a criminal offense. Now, ticketed students see a probation officer who only sends them to court as last resort.
Rose Solache wishes that had been the case four years ago when she was in middle school and got into her first fight. Even though she went to court, that fight lead to three more over two years. Today the girls would have been brought in to talk about it instead.
"That week a lot of people had gotten into fights and everybody got ticketed. And I was one of those students," said Solache. "So now that I’m older, I was reflecting and I’m like, 'why didn’t we ever do this?' You know, it could have prevented four other fights. Four other people getting ticketed, four other people having their parents go to court so you know it could have just prevented the situation from escalating."
Despite these efforts, citations for 2012 are in line with 2011, and middle-school kids make up nearly half those ticketed, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity. One area of success that is indisputable, says school police chief Steven Zipperman, is a reduction in truancy citations.
"As I speak to you today…since it’s been implemented in August, our truancy citations, year to date, compared to last year at the same time, are down 63 percent," said Zipperman. "Last year, at this point, up to 1,700 cited. Now down to 700 or so at this point."
Unless an officer absolutely has to issue a ticket, all truant students are now referred to one of 13 counseling offices.
Dr. Earl Perkins, oversees discipline for L.A. Unified. He says the district is implementing a “positive behavioral” model where teachers and administrators praise and encourage students rather than rely on punishment to improve behavior. That shift is occurring at every level within schools. One sign of its success: suspension rates have been cut in half.
"We figured if we’re going to make this deal go right we must make sure the administrators, the students, the parents are all on the same page," said Perkins. "That we understand that our goal is to help keep kids in school and to show them that with that, instruction will increase."
But in a district as behemoth as L.A. Unified, with the largest school police force in the country, it’ll take a while. At the start of the school year only a third of the district’s schools were using the “positive behavioral” model.
This story was co-reported with Susan Ferriss of the Center for Public Integrity.