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Decriminalizing truancy in the LAUSD

Sikivu Hutchinson | 2/22/2012, 5 p.m.

Recently, in a class discussion
about youth not having a
voice at school, my students
gave me an earful about racially
disparate discipline policies.
They pointed to a culture of
disrespect that they believe marginalizes and disfavors
outspoken African American students.
For many, this culture is rooted in a policing
regime that kicks in before they even get to school,
buttressed by criminalizing truancy policies that disproportionately
target Black and Latino youth.
Over the past several years, Los Angeles Unified
School Police and the Los Angeles Police Department
have handed out 88 percent of the $250 truancy tickets
dispensed to Black and Latino students, who constitute
74 percent of the district's student population.
Moreover, a significant number of youth of color in
South L.A. schools such as Gardena and Washington
Prep High Schools are homeless, in foster care and/or
indigent. So in what parallel universe does a low
income student, a homeless student or a student in
foster care afford a $250 ticket?
Clearly doling out tickets to students who are
already faced with deep educational challenges is a
recipe for disaster. But the city's current daytime curfew
policy bolsters a culture of suppression and
enforcement that further exacerbates the yawning
achievement gap and feeds the school-to-prison
pipeline. It sends students the insidious message that
being late for school is a criminal act, rather than a
social issue which caring adult providers, families,
and communities must actively redress in order to
serve the needs of struggling young people.
Towards this end, Los Angeles City Councilmember
Tony Cardenas introduced a motion that
would revise daytime curfew laws to make them
more culturally responsive to the needs of workingclass,
transit-dependent students of color. The
motion was passed by the City Council's Safety
Committee on Feb. 13 and will go to the full council
for a vote on Feb. 21.
It calls on the LAPD and school police to end the
practice of issuing citations with fines for truancy
when minors are within range of their school sites. It
also requires that these law enforcement agencies collect
demographic data on the population of minors
cited for truancy infractions.
The Community Rights Campaign and allies such
as Public Counsel and the ACLU are spearheading the
effort to decriminalize truancy. In addition to the City
Council motion, the coalition is urging law enforcement
and school officials to consider programs that
emphasize restorative justice and non-punitive conflict
mediation approaches to addressing truancy.
It is also recommending that school officials work
with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to
develop policies that ease the burden on transitdependent
youth who are often at the mercy of erratic
bus schedules. By framing truancy as a systemic issue
informed by multiple social, economic, and educational
factors, the Community Rights Campaign is
part of a growing movement that has emerged to
challenge long-standing institutionally racist and classist
discipline policies that disenfranchise youth of
color in the LAUSD. Despite the 2008 implementation
of the district's so-called School Wide Positive
Behavior Support System, egregious racial disparities
in discipline are still rampant in the LAUSD.
The entire City Council should get behind this
motion and send a strong message to the LAUSD
that its culture of youth disenfranchisement will not
be legitimized by law enforcement's suppression tactics
on the streets.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women's Leadership
Project, which is based at Gardena and Washington Prep High
Schools. She is also the author of "Moral Combat: Black Atheists,
Gender Politics, and the Values Wars" and the forthcoming
"Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels."
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