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LAPD Stops Arresting Kids on Their Way to School

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Written with my brother David Sapp, who was one of the ACLU staff attorneys in the meetings that resulted in this policy change.

Imagine that you're running late to school -- maybe you forgot your lunch, maybe you had to help your younger siblings get ready for school, or maybe you just overslept.

You hear the late bell ring just as you're approaching campus, but you're met right outside the school gate by a squad of police officers, who detain you for 45 minutes and give you a daytime curfew ticket that carries a $250 fine before letting you go to class. And then you have to miss a full school day several weeks later to go to court to deal with the ticket.

That has been the reality for thousands of students in Los Angeles, which has a daytime curfew that makes it illegal for basically any youth under the age of 18 to be in public while school is in session. Until recently, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) routinely conducted enforcement sweeps around schools first thing in the morning, so that students who were trying to get to school were the ones most likely to be ticketed.

This approach had the perverse effect of slamming the schoolhouse door in the face of students, even when they are doing their best to get to school. Countless students like Christopher Padilla and Rachel Ferreira were stopped for being a few minutes late and then missed additional class time as they were processed and ticketed. And, like every student who receives a citation, they had to miss at least a day of school for the court hearing to resolve the ticket. Some students actually miss several school days because their cases are not resolved at the first hearing. And at least one parent must miss work to accompany the student to each court hearing.

Surprise, surprise -- students of color were also cited at rates far outpacing their representation in the population. According to LA school police data, none of the more than 13,000 tickets they issued from 2005 to 2009 went to a white student. Apparently white students are never late for school.

Thankfully, after meeting with advocates from the Community Rights Campaign, Public Counsel, and the ACLU of Southern California, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck recently issued a new policy that makes several important changes in how LAPD will enforce Los Angeles' daytime curfew, including:

  • Coordinated curfew enforcement sweeps cannot occur during the first hour of classes;
  • Officers are discouraged from issuing a ticket if a student is clearly headed toward school; and
  • Supervisors must identify objective indicators of a pattern of criminal activity by youth before coordinated curfew enforcement sweeps are approved.

Figuring out effective strategies to keep students in school is no simple task. Many factors contribute to low attendance rates, ranging from emotional and mental health problems to hostile school environment and lack of appropriate academic supports, from economic pressures and lack of adequate transportation to family issues. But, as Gara LaMarche recently argued on HuffPost, the lack of a simple solution is no excuse for defaulting to punitive law enforcement tactics, especially when so much data and research confirm that they are not just ineffective, but actually harmful to students.

Instead, the real solution is for law enforcement and school officials to put in hard work to collaborate with the community to figure out the best path forward. To LAPD's credit, that is what happened here, and it should serve as an example as we all continue working to improve student attendance in LA and around the country.