By Teresa Watanabe
Michael Davis experienced firsthand the negative effects of campus discipline when he received a police citation for tardiness in middle school and later was removed from class for failing to wear the school uniform at Manual Arts High in South Los Angeles.
After years of fighting for change, Michael and others Tuesday celebrated the unveiling of a groundbreaking move by Los Angeles Unified school police to stop giving citations for fighting, petty theft and other minor offenses. Students instead will be referred to counseling and other programs.
"So often students are just thrown to the cops and put in handcuffs without getting to the root of their problems," said Michael, a 17-year-old senior. "This new policy is such an accomplishment and will definitely make a difference."
The decisive step back from punitive law enforcement actions reflects growing research that handling minor offenses with police actions does not necessarily make campuses safer, but often push struggling students to drop out and get in more serious trouble with the law.
The sweeping changes in the nation's second-largest school system come after years of pressure from community groups and intensified monitoring by the federal government over discriminatory school discipline practices. In a 2011 voluntary agreement with the U.S. Education Department, the district pledged to track and report discipline data and eliminate inequitable practices. Last year, the Los Angeles Board of Education directed school police to reduce their involvement in minor student offenses.
The broad backing for L.A. Unified's new approach was reflected by the school board members, administrators, school police, a teacher union leader, a Juvenile Court judge and community activists who attended the announcement at Manual Arts on Tuesday.
"We are about graduation, not incarceration," L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy told the crowd.
School Police Chief Steven Zipperman said major offenses posing serious and immediate threats to school safety, such as possession of weapons, still will be handled by L.A. school police. The district's force of more than 475 police and security officers make up the nation's largest independent school police department.
For lesser offenses, however, Zipperman said officers will use a new "graduated response" policy to determine, with school administrators, the most appropriate action without an arrest or a citation.
Considerations will include whether the student is younger than 12, is a first-time offender or can be effectively handled with a warning, "cooling off" period, a meeting with parents or alternative discipline practice such as restorative justice. That practice requires the misbehaving student to meet with the person harmed to apologize and resolve the conflict.
In most cases, possession of tobacco, theft of property less than $50 and trespassing will be referred to school administrators. Possession of alcohol or marijuana of less than an ounce, fighting and vandalism causing less than $400 in damage will be referred to either administrators or community programs such as the city-run YouthSource Centers for counseling and other services.
"Our students are safe right now, and nothing's changed," Zipperman said. "But we have a teachable moment here to provide opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes."
Community activists who have worked for seven years to reduce police involvement on Los Angeles campuses hailed the policy.
"This is a major breakthrough that will create some protections for students and move away from the kind of punishment culture we've had for too long," said Manuel Criollo of the Community Rights Campaign, a Los Angeles civil rights group.
National studies show that one arrest doubles a student's chance of dropping out of school, according to Ruth Cusick of the L.A. pro bono law firm Public Counsel. Another study found that Texas students who were suspended were far more likely to repeat a grade, drop out and have further run-ins with the juvenile justice system.
Union leaders for both teachers and administrators said they supported the new policy but that more staff and training would be necessary to fully launch it. Deasy said the district had added more than 3,000 new employees, including teachers, principals and counselors this year, and that more would be added if the state further increased funding.
The reforms are also backed by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judges Michael Nash and Donna Groman. Nash presides over the county's Juvenile Court, and Groman co-hosted a 2012 summit on methods to reduce the number of children arrested for minor offenses.
Nash lauded what he called a "turn away from the failed punitive ways" to work with students in favor of more effective methods to change their behavior.
"We don't need courts to punish kids for being kids," Nash said. "We need adults ... to work with and teach kids to respect themselves, their peers and the other members of their communities."
The changes were forged after more than two years of discussion among Community Rights Campaign, Public Counsel, administrators, police and others.
The policy builds on earlier agreements to reduce police citations and fines for students who were tardy or absent. Citations have plunged from 11,698 in 2009-10 to 3,499 last year. But African Americans are still disproportionately arrested, making up 31% of 1,100 arrests by L.A. school police in 2013, even though they make up less than 10% of the student population.
Last year, the L.A. Board of Education became the first in the state to ban defiance as grounds for suspension. The board also voted to use alternatives such as restorative justice and to limit school police involvement in minor incidents.
Board member Monica Garcia, who pushed the measure through, said the policy should serve as a national model. Despite the district's high poverty and other challenges, she said, "we are figuring out a way forward."
Board President Richard Vladovic, who gave conditional support to the changes approved last year, said Tuesday he "absolutely" supported the new policing approach. He said the ban on defiance for suspensions and other efforts have not proved disruptive and have helped support students with a "second chance."
"I want to decriminalize schools as much as we can," he said. "Kids are going to fall down, and there needs to be a safety net for them."
Michael Davis agreed. Manual Arts already has begun shifting discipline practices, he said, with a smaller police presence and alternative approaches he said are far more effective with troubled students.
When he failed to wear the proper colored shirt three years ago, he said, he was confined to a detention room for a week while he wrote an essay about his infraction. But under Principal Robert Whitman, the school has shelved such practices in favor of restorative justice and weekly classroom discussion circles.
"Before, they made you feel they didn't want you in the classroom," Michael said. "Now they try to have active conversations with you and build healthy relationships."
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