A growing wave of juvenile justice experts say school districts send too many students to court for minor offenses. Usually those kids are African American or Latino. A nonprofit’s effort to track school citations within Los Angeles Unified indicates that the district is following that pattern.
There are two sides to every schoolyard shoving match. This story is about only one – and about the way a disciplinary matter can escalate.
Here’s what happened: Almost exactly a year ago, AJ Johnson and another 7th grader got into a scuffle on the basketball court during a P.E. class at Barack Obama Global Preparatory Academy in South LA.
At some point during the fight, AJ kicked the other kid. School administrators broke it up, called the police and then his parents.
AJ’s dad, Alexander Johnson, arrived at the school and found that L.A. Unified School officers had finished investigating.
"Next thing I see is AJ coming out in cuffs and I’m asking him, like, 'What’s going on?'" said Johnson. The police handcuffed him, drove him to the station, took his fingerprints and mug shots. At the time, AJ was 12 years old. "They said that was assault with a deadly weapon and he was going to be charged for it … His foot was the assault with the deadly weapon."
After AJ made four court appearances, a juvenile court judge dismissed that and other charges. Letters that listed his academic successes, his 3.6 grade point average, spelling bee award plaques, and football trophies were enough to convince the judge that the arresting officers had overreacted.
His father — who was eager to talk about it — believes the school administration did too. "If I had to go with my gut I would say that the principal was all in for the police just coming up there and rounding all the kids up," said Johnson
Unfortunately, the principal did not respond to requests for interviews. The federal Department of Education’s civil rights office is reviewing the way LA Unified handles discipline in incidents as serious as AJ’s and in minor ones, too.
The district recently reported that during the last three years school police issued more than 33,000 tickets for alleged violations like vandalism, tardiness, and disturbing the peace.
The non-profit Center for Public Integrity is one of several groups compiling data about school policing throughout the country. It reviewed L.A. Unified’s numbers and found that 40 percent of those tickets went to kids 14 and younger — mostly middle schoolers.
The Center also found that school police wrote an overwhelming number of tickets at schools with large numbers of Latino and African-American students.
L.A. Unified Police Chief Steve Zipperman says that despite what the numbers suggest, his police enforce the law consistently throughout the district. "This is not an issue of…we’re profiling a certain ethnicity," said Zipperman. "The difference becomes the frequency with which some of these violations occur. Unfortunately, the numbers show that it’s happening more frequently in some of the areas that are of higher African-American and Hispanic ethnicity."
He dismisses civil rights groups’ arguments that his department cracks down more on kids in high crime areas than on those in neighborhoods with less crime.
"In most cases, it’s not up to a teacher," said Zipperman. "It’s going to be up to school administrators and the school police to decide if a student is going to be arrested or dealt with administratively."
Judge Donna Quigley Groman is the supervising judge at the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in Los Angeles. She is disturbed about the number of young kids she's been seeing come in to court with minor offenses that could and, she thinks, should be death with elsewhere.
"Instead they’re sitting here missing school the parents are missing work and they’re mingling with youth that that are just not very good influences," said Groman.
Groman is one of a growing number of juvenile court judges who say it’s time to overhaul school discipline programs and try more school-based counseling. Now, she says, is the perfect time to make big changes.
In a few weeks, because of budget cuts, L.A. County is closing all the courts that deal with kids who receive these tickets. That means from now on, instead of judges, kids will go to probation officers who’ll determine whether the students need any intervention.
"Which is actually a good thing," said Groman. "Because this is the way I believe, the system should have worked before where there’s some sort of screening process before the youth and parent is given a citation to go to any kind of court."
But Groman doesn’t have complete faith that it will. The deadline to shut down the informal courts is less than four weeks away and the juvenile courts have not yet adopted a new policy.
Almost a year after the incident, AJ Johnson, now about to enter ninth grade, says he’s not eager to dwell on it.
"It's not something I just go around: I got into a fight. You want to know? I got arrested. I don't talk about it like that," said AJ.
His parents would like to put it behind them too, but even though L.A. Unified has sealed the records of this dismissed case, the school district’s hanging on to AJ’s mug shots and fingerprints in case he ever gets in trouble again.
This story was co-reported with Susan Ferriss of the Center for Public Integrity.