Crackdown on Truants Snares Lawful Students

Home- and private-school parents assail 'unfair' law

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Three years ago, voters in this all-American town of 50,000 put themselves on the map as the nation's toughest truant-busters. No one under 18, said the country's first daytime-curfew law, could "loiter, idle, wander, or be" in public on school days from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Two years later, President Clinton recognized the community policing efforts as a national model while police lauded a dramatic drop in crime and school dropout rates. Other towns in California and several states mimicked the ordinance hoping for the same, dramatic impacts.

But this week, a shoe has dropped that could trample Monrovia's good intentions and effect daytime curfews around the country. A coalition of private-school and home-schooled children and their parents filed suit alleging that the city's curfew law is against both the state and United States constitutions.

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"This will likely be the nation's first, great test case clarifying how far communities and their police can go in restricting the movements of minors," says James Kushner, a professor at Southwestern School of Law in Los Angeles. "Until now, laws around the country have been vague, unclear, and often conflicting. This could be either the validation or death knell of day and evening curfews everywhere."

Monrovia's mayor as well as school and church officials are quick to support the curfew. Police Chief Joseph Santoro cites a string of statistics - including residential burglary down 61 percent and drug activity down 57 percent - that he attributes to the curfew.

But it has come at the expense of at least some students who claim they have been unfairly treated by law-enforcement officials because their educational schedules vary from those of the public schools.

"I don't like being pulled over by the police all the time and being made to feel I am doing something wrong," says teenage home-schooler Jess Harrahill, who says he has been stopped 14 times since September.

"I feel like my children are living in a police state, in constant fear of being arrested," adds his mother, Rosemary. Because of what she feels has become the needless and regular harassment of innocent minors, Rosemary and her husband, Don, have formed a local group called Concerned Parents of Monrovia Schoolchildren.

When the group of about 130 parents felt that their pleas to local school officials and police to lighten up on home- and privately schooled children had come to no avail, they filed a lawsuit.

"Curfews are a tool of martial law and are designed to bring people under control who are living in a war zone," said Michael Farris, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, based in Virginia. "We don't believe that the all-American city of Monrovia is a war zone."

The nonprofit, national legal foundation - which the Harrahills belong to as home-schooling parents - is putting its own money into the lawsuit without charge to the Monrovia parents. The group hopes to nullify all daytime curfews, including versions in the California cities of San Diego, Alhambra, Long Beach, and Pasadena.

At a press conference on the steps of a downtown court building, the group brought several children to tell their own stories. One girl recounted how she and a friend were stopped by two plainclothes policeman and asked for identification before being let go. Another boy said he is routinely stopped from entering grocery stores and told to go directly home.

But local police say they do not harass children. They say they merely ask the children what they are doing, check out their stories with a quick phone call, and let them go.

"We really think these parents are mixing up our caring with harassment," says Chief Santoro. Although the law says truants can be cited for a $135 fine or 27 hours of community service, Santoro says, "no one has ever been issued a citation improperly or unkindly."

Both sides can cite case law in support of their argument, but the current suit - now before Los Angeles Superior Court - may well resolve the conflict. "This will likely be the case that settles the matter," says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "It is great that Monrovia has been able to achieve such results ... but at what cost to our personal freedoms?"

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