Detention, not jail: LA public schools drop 'zero tolerance' policies

Starting this school year, conferences with parents, drug counseling, or interventions at off-site counseling centers will replace court or probation for minor offenses

Reed Saxon/AP/File
Superintendent John Deasy waits for a public hearing at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District in downtown Los Angeles, March 13, 2012. Students in Los Angeles caught misbehaving will be sent to the principal’s office rather than the courthouse, part of a sweeping reforms to the discipline policy announced Tuesday, Aug. 19, at the nation’s second largest school district. Deasy says police officers won’t arrest or cite students for low-level offenses but will instead refer them to administrators or counselors.

Students caught misbehaving in the nation's second largest school district will be sent to the principal's office rather than the courthouse as part of sweeping disciplinary reforms announced Tuesday by Los Angeles schools.

Under the new policy, police officers at Los Angeles Unified School District won't arrest or cite students for low-level offenses like possessing alcohol or marijuana but will instead refer students to administrators or counselors — a shift that educators and justice officials say will prevent students from becoming mired in the criminal justice system.

The decriminalization of student discipline marks the latest rollback to "zero tolerance" policies that were instituted in the 1970s and 1980s and intensified in the wake of the Columbine school shooting. School districts from California to Florida have instituted so-called restorative justice measures, which aim to address the underlying reasons for misconduct rather than mete out harsh punishments. The Obama administration in January issued recommendations favoring conflict resolution over arrests and citations.

"We want students to be with us, not pushed out and sent to jail," Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy said. "We have been disproportionately incarcerating, disproportionately citing, and disproportionately suspending youth of color, and it's wrong."

With more than 640,000 students at nearly 1,100 schools and charter schools, Los Angeles is among the largest school districts to adopt less punitive discipline. The district's more than 350 officers make up the largest school police force in the country.

The new policy includes infractions like possessing alcohol, tobacco and less than an ounce of marijuana, along with most schoolyard fights.

The rules are in place for the current school year and direct school police to follow a step-by-step formula that could result in conferences with parents, drug counseling or interventions at off-site counseling centers. Previously, such offenses would send a student to court or probation.

More serious violations like selling drugs or brandishing a weapon will still merit arrest or citation.

"This is about changing behavior," school board member Mónica García said. "We're acknowledging we have young people who need guidance and an opportunity to learn from their mistakes."

Dealing with repeat offenses isn't spelled out to give police and administrators greater latitude to address underlying issues. The goal was to provide "the most appropriate intervention," school police Chief Steve Zipperman said.

Students ages 13 to 17 will be covered by the new policy, which aims to reduce racial disparities in arrest and citation rates.

"It really is in low-income communities of color that we've seen this increase in law enforcement presence," said Ruth Cusick, an attorney with pro bono law firm Public Counsel who helped negotiate the policy changes with the district's police force.

Of the approximately 9,000 arrests and tickets issued to students in the 2011-2012 school year, 93 percent involved black and Latino students, according to data provided by the district to the Labor/Community Strategy Center. And last school year, black students made up one-third of those suspended although they account for about 11 percent of the total student population.

The school district already has moved to scale back harsher policies. The district became the first in the nation to stop suspending students for defiance. Rather than slap truant students with a ticket, the school district has directed tardy kids to off-site resource centers.

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