Los Angeles Moves to Limit Number of Students Arrested

Posted December 2, 2014, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, is moving forward on a  groundbreaking agreement that will sharply limit the number of students arrested or ticketed for misbehavior in L.A. public schools.  

The agreement, the latest in a series of significant reforms, marks the culmination of several years of effort by local advocates and system leaders and it is great news for Los Angeles youth. It is also an encouraging indicator of the growing momentum nationwide behind efforts to reverse counterproductive zero tolerance school discipline policies.  

From 2004 through 2009, Los Angeles County police and a separate school police force issued 47,000 truancy citations (nearly 10,000 per year). Each citation carried a minimum fine of $250 and required both the student and a parent to attend a court hearing (meaning a missed school day for the student and often a lost work day for the parent). Many of these truancy tickets were issued to students arriving late to school, even if they were only a few minutes late and their tardiness was the result of a public transit delay.

In addition, L.A. school police arrested or issued citations to thousands more students every year for disorderly conduct, vandalism, alcohol, tobacco and marijuana possession, run-of-the-mill schoolyard fighting, or other minor misbehavior. Nearly half the students arrested or ticketed were 14 or younger;  nearly all were black or Hispanic and hailed from low-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile, L.A. County schools suspended thousands of students each year and expelled hundreds, many of them for “willful disobedience” and other vague or non-serious transgressions.

These practices persisted in Los Angeles, as in many communities nationwide – despite research showing that being forced to appear in court during high school nearly quadruples the odds that a student will drop out. Research also shows that suspensions and expulsions triple the likelihood of juvenile justice system involvement in the following year.

Fortunately, Los Angeles has begun to turn the situation around. Over the past four years truancy ticketing has been cut by more than 90 percent. School police stopped issuing citations to students 12 and under (except in the most egregious cases). Additionally, schools have sharply reduced the total number of students suspended and expelled.   

The new agreement will take the reforms several steps further. Students involved in routine fights, petty theft, possession of tobacco, alcohol, or small amounts of marijuana will be referred to youth centers for counseling and other services rather than facing citations or arrests. 

We applaud the progress being made in Los Angeles and are pleased to note that the Los Angeles agreement closely mirrors protocols forged years ago in trailblazing JDAI sites like Clayton County, GA and Jefferson County, AL, which dramatically reduced school arrests and improved school outcomes. More recently, similar pacts have been signed in jurisdictions like Denver, CO; Pasadena, CA; Broward County, FL; and in Baltimore, MD.  

If your jurisdiction has not yet taken a close look at its practices related to school discipline and school arrests and particularly if zero tolerance policies remain in place, now is the time for action.

As L.A. school superintendent, John Deasy told the Huffington Post, "We want students to be with us, not pushed out and sent to jail.  We have been disproportionately incarcerating, disproportionately citing, and disproportionately suspending youth of color, and it's wrong."

Casey is currently preparing a practice guide focused on School-to-Prison Pipeline reforms in Clayton County, GA. It should be ready for release in early 2015.

This post is related to: