More Los Angeles Unified students move in and out of juvenile detention than any other school district in the country. After release, their academic prospects have been dismal.
Now a new effort mandated by the state legislature aims to improve the students' chances at graduating high school, but that promise is dependent on a counseling program facing district budget cuts.
For many students in the program, some from foster homes, others with drug problems, counselors serve as the link between the juvenile detention they hope to leave behind and their local schools.
The district's counselors help students re-enroll in school after their release, keep them on track to graduate, connect them with social services and even give them an occasional ride.
When 19-year-old Liliana Flores was in fifth grade, her parents immigrated into the United States from El Salvador. Her family was fleeing gang violence, but it only followed them to Los Angeles.
"I never had a happy home," she said.
Social workers thought Flores would be safer in foster care. She was tossed from group home to group home packed with troubled teens.
“I started doing the same things they were doing,” Flores said.
She got into drugs, and it led to a series of stints in juvenile detention centers scattered throughout Los Angeles County. In between her time away, she attended continuation high schools filled with other at-risk students struggling to stay within the law.
“There is no way these kids are going to do right or going to do better if they are still relating with these kids who are doing bad, getting into fights,” Flores said.
The numbers bear her out: when children are abused or neglected, their likelihood of being arrested increases by 55 percent, according to crime researchers. Their risk for a violent crime arrest skyrockets by 96 percent.
The missing link
After students served their time in juvenile detention, they often disappeared from school officials' radars.
Nearly 80 percent of juvenile offenders failed to enroll in their local school within a month of release from detention centers, according to advocates at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.
"We didn’t know who these kids were," said Erika Torres, LAUSD's director of pupil services who works with students at risk of not graduating. "It wasn’t being tracked, and we didn’t have a formal structure."
Administrators did not always know when students were getting out of juvenile detention, making it difficult for the schools to get them back in class.
Last summer, the California Legislature passed AB 2276, mandating that the juvenile justice system connect with local schools. The Youth Law Center and the legal advocates group Public Counsel co-drafted the legislation.
Still, one more piece in the system was needed to help transition students back to class.
“There has to be somebody there to support that change,” said Paul Schuster, an LAUSD counselor. “That is the missing link.”
But not all students are receptive to the help, Schuster said.
“I try to connect a lot of kids and they don’t take the services,” he said. “A lot of kids just aren’t ready.”
Growing up tough
Raymond Zambrano never saw himself as a criminal.
"When I first started getting into trouble, it was more minor things," he explained. "Like spray painting, vandalism. You know, little things."
The little things turned to bigger items, like stolen phones and computers. Raymond said he started stealing to get high, but also to support his family after his mom was diagnosed with cancer.
Raymond was just 14 when he first landed in juvenile detention.
Raymond Zambrano takes a break between classes at Owensmouth Continuation School in Canoga Park on March 19, 2015. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
“When I first got locked up, I thought, ‘Damn, is this really going to be me?’” he remembered. “I started to figure out, ‘Damn, is this really going to be my life?’”
At the family’s spotless, tiny home in Panorama City, Raymond’s mom, Faviola Morelos, is getting ready to serve hot dogs for dinner.
Raymond Zambrano's sister Ciara Chavez, 8, left, and nephew Isiah Moreno, 4, play in Zambrano's Panorama City home on April 27, 2015. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
Like Flores, Raymond endured a chaotic upbringing. His dad landed in prison, then moved back to Mexico while Morelos worked long hours manufacturing cosmetics to support the family.
Morelos, a mother of five, said she saw her son growing up with a chip on his shoulder.
"He had to be stronger than everybody, that he would not let nobody step on him," Morelos said.
Raymond was in and out of the juvenile detention throughout his teens.
“He [would come] back home with a change, but the change was only good for three months, and then he went back,” Morelos said. “He was like coming and going.”
“It was really tough,” she said.
Raymond's last detention stay ended in August 2014. It should have been the start of his senior year, but he was so behind in school, graduation seemed impossible.
Raymond met Schuster shortly after his release.
As Schuster sat down with Raymond at a long lunch table at Owensmouth Continuation School in Canoga Park, it's hard not to see this conversation as a last-ditch effort to keep him on track.
Raymond is now eighteen and running out of time to get a standard high school diploma.
Paul Schuster, a counselor for the Los Angeles Unified School District, checks in with Raymond Zambrano at Owensmouth Continuation School in Canoga Park on March 19, 2015. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
“So, you still haven’t finished a class,” Schuster said.
“I’m like two chapters away from closing U.S. history. It's just right there,” Raymond replied. “And, I’m almost done with economics. I’m more than halfway.”
Schuster is one of only 11 counselors doing this work, and the district is considering cuts that could leave schools with even fewer counselors.
Meanwhile, the number of students returning from juvenile detention just keeps growing. More than 100 LAUSD teens are released each month. The caseload more than triples by the end of the school year.
The rising numbers means little time to spare for personal check-ins, but Schuster does it anyway.
“Alright. Is anything else going on?” he asks Raymond.
There's a short silence, then Raymond says: “My grandfather passed away, and today we are having a funeral.”
Schuser says he's sorry and Raymond asks for a ride.
“To the funeral place.”
Schuster agrees, but it's clear he is worried about Raymond: he's been arguing with school staff, defying class rules and skipping class.
Raymond Zambrano, 18, attends U.S. history class at Owensmouth Continuation School in Canoga Park on March 19, 2015. "I'm like two chapters away from closing U.S. history. It's just right there," Zambrano said. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
A couple of weeks later, Schuster called me to say Raymond had not been showing up for school. The principal was ready to cut him loose.
“[The principal] can’t let Raymond call the shots,” Schuster said. “He has to hold him accountable. It was tough love.”
Schuster scrambled to get Raymond enrolled at another campus. But with just days left in the school year, Raymond stopped showing up.
In need of guidance
Even after her incarceration, Flores wears a uniform: a long-sleeve, button-down shirt with a neat collar.
It conceals the tattoos climbing her arms, inked across her chest and spread around her scalp. On her neck, a tattoo she got when she was 14 years old says “f--- love” in swirling letters.
Liliana Flores has been working at Homeboy Industries since January. The organization focuses on helping youth offenders. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
Valli Cohen, a nurse practitioner, is taking a laser to Flores' tattoo at the Homeboy Industries medical office, which specializes in gang tattoo removal.
"What the laser does is it breaks up the ink and gradually, over time, your body absorbs it," Cohen explained.
"It hurts," Flores said, but she is tougher than most.
Liliana Flores has a removal session for her neck tattoo at Homeboy Industries on April 15, 2015. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
It’s hard to tell if the attempt to track students exiting juvenile detention is having an impact. LAUSD declined to provide the numbers of students who re-enroll and go on to graduate.
But Flores said it is working for her: her counselor looks out for her in a way her parents cannot.
“You need guidance in life,” Flores said. “Getting you into school, buy your books, getting to know your school more.”
One sunny morning, Flores arrived a couple of hours before her class at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, a fast-food breakfast in hand.
“Right now, I’m taking Criminal Justice I, and I’m taking Criminal Justice II,” she said.
Flores plans to transfer to University of California, Santa Cruz, and eventually become a probation officer. Her report card is full of Bs and she said the fact that she’s undocumented is her motivation.
Liliana Flores is taking criminal justice classes while attending Pierce College. (Maya Sugarman/KPCC)
“I must get a degree or do something with my life. Because if I continue to go to jail, I’m going to get deported,” Flores said. “I’m going to go back to El Salvador. What am I going to do over there?”
With the help of Schuster and her former probation staff – adults who stuck around even after Flores graduated from high school and was released from probation – Flores won thousands of dollars in scholarships and secured a Social Security number.
With documentation, she'll be able to work once she graduates, and will no longer have to support herself by illicit means.
“It's a big deal,” she said.