LOS ANGELES — After years of arresting students for on-campus fights and damaging school property, Los Angeles school officials are adopting new policies to reduce the number of students who are disciplined in the juvenile court system.
Under new policies expected to be introduced Tuesday, students who deface school property, participate in an on-campus fights or are caught with tobacco will no longer be given citations by officers from the Los Angeles School Police Department. Instead, they will be dealt with by school officials.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is the second-largest school system in the country, behind New York City, but has the largest school police force, with more than 350 armed officers.
A report last year by the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a civil rights group, found that students at Los Angeles schools were far more likely to receive a criminal citation than students in Chicago, Philadelphia or New York.
Several studies, including one released last year by the federal Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, have found that black and Latino students are far more likely to face harsh disciplinary procedures. A department study released this year found that black students faced more severe discipline as early as preschool: Nearly half of all preschool children suspended were African-American.
Michael Nash, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Courts, who was involved in creating the new policies, said that the juvenile justice system was overtaxed, and that the changes would ensure that the courts were dealing only with youngsters who “really pose the greatest risk to the community.”
“There are enough studies that show bringing them into the justice system is really more of a slippery slope that leads to negative outcomes and poor futures,” Judge Nash said. “The people who are in these schools need to deal with these issues, not use the courts as an outlet. We have to change our attitude and realize that the punitive approach clearly hasn’t worked.”
Judge Nash cited examples of students who were sent to court for using profanity while arguing with a teacher.
“What is the court going to do? The kid is going to lose a day of school, and the family is going to get a fine they aren’t going to be able to afford,” he said. “What’s the point of that?”
Both Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have decried the negative impact of “zero tolerance” policies. National studies have also shown that students are more likely to drop out if they are arrested, and many advocates have long criticized harsh discipline as part of what they call the “school to prison pipeline.”
School systems in Northern California and Georgia have also made similar changes in recent years.
“We want schools to be a place where kids are pre-med or pre-jobs, not pre-prison,” said Manuel Criollo, the director of organizing at theLabor/Community Strategy Center, which has pushed for the changes in the district for years. “Students really have been profiled inside the school setting, instead of getting the help they need from school counselors.”
Students 14 years old and under received more than 45 percent of the district’s 1,360 citations in 2013, according to the Strategy Center. African-American students, who account for about 10 percent of the total population, received 39 percent of “disturbing the peace” citations, typically given for fights.
A citation is referred to the county Probation Department, which can then prevent teenagers from receiving a driver’s license. An arrest usually leads to a mandatory appearance in Juvenile Court for the student and his or her parents, and often a fine. Cases of arrested students are passed to the district attorney, who decides whether or not to pursue charges.
“We’re talking about schoolyard fights that a couple of decades ago nobody would have ever thought would lead to arrest,” said Ruth Cusick, an education rights lawyer for Public Counsel, a nonprofit group that helped draft the new policies. “The criminalizing of this behavior only goes on in low-income communities.”
In 2012, Los Angeles school officials stopped citing students who arrived late for class. That has reduced the number of citations for absent students by more than 90 percent, while attendance rates have largely stayed steady or improved, Judge Nash said.