Nabil Romero was handcuffed, searched and fined by police as he approached Edward Roybal Learning Center in Westlake.
His crime: he was late to school by a few minutes. The reason: the then 17-year-old took two buses for his commute, and both came late.
The ordeal ended with a $350 truancy fine and additional court fees that meant a cutback in food for his family. Raised in a single-parent home, $350 dollars means half of one month’s rent, or food for four weeks.
"This was all my fault because I was not in class," said Romero to the Los Angeles Times.
Now, new amendments to the city of Los Angeles' nine-year-old daytime curfew laws, originally meant to improve school attendance, may lower, if not end the hefty fines, and prohibit police from arresting tardy students during the first hour of class and within three-blocks of schools. Consequences for truancy would steer from fines and move towards community service and counseling.
This week -- with mounting pressure by advocates and community members critical of current truancy policies -- the motion was cleared by the five-member Los Angeles County Public Safety Committee. The bill is now up for a vote by the Los Angeles City Council next Wednesday.
"We hope that the City Council passes the motion and that they ensure that the fine is capped at $180, still a significant penalty," says Laura Faer, the Director of Education Rights at Public Counsel Law Center, the largest pro-bono law firm in the nation.
"And really, for the young people we’re talking about -- the 450,000 who take buses -- the average live in homes annually earning $15,000 or less," she said.
Advocates say that the practice creates an environment that criminalizes youth, interrupts academic performance -- citing research that shows early juvenile court involvement lowers graduation rates -- and is indicative of racial profiling.
Faer has worked for years with youth who have been affected by the fines, and adds "what that ticket resulted in was basically having more fear about going to school." And ironically, those tickets mean daytime court appearances for which students miss school.
This month, the L.A. County Education Coordinating Council's School Attendance Task Force, a multi-disciplinary team from the County that reflects all groups working on the issue, including schools, community organizations, the District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD), released a report confirming that "the daytime curfew has disproportionately affected African-American and Latino youth." Astoundingly, the data also shows that of the nearly 11,000 citations issued between 2005-2009, no white youths were ever ticketed for truancy by LASPD, despite representing 13.18 percent of all LAUSD relevant youth.
"In contrast, the African-American youth received 16.03 percent of the tickets issued, while representing only 9.88 percent of the underlying population. Latino youth received 71.76 percent of the tickets, while representing 67.76 percent of total youth," according to the report.
Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Children’s Defense Fund, students and parents, among others, will be at the public hearing to testify on Wednesday, February 22.
"We hope there will be a day when people recognize that students, parents, and schools are taking the first step on attendance," said Faer, "We want to address the root causes. When you get young people to programming like mentoring and tutoring, and engage them with adults who care about them, that does work. Those are the solutions that work."