By Sikivu Hutchinson
Recently, in a class discussion about youth not having a voice at school, my students gave me an earful about racially disparate discipline policies. They pointed to a culture of disrespect that they believe marginalizes and disfavors outspoken African American students. For many, this culture is rooted in a policing regime that kicks in before they even get to school, buttressed by criminalizing truancy policies that disproportionately target black and Latino youth. Over the past several years Los Angeles Unified School Police and the LAPD have handed out 88% of $250 truancy tickets to black and Latino students. Blacks and Latinos constitute 74% of the student population. Moreover, a significant number of youth of color in South L.A. schools such as Gardena and Washington Prep High Schools are homeless, in foster care and/or indigent. So in what parallel universe does a low income student, a homeless student or a student in foster care afford a $250 ticket? Clearly doling out tickets to students who are already faced with deep educational challenges is a recipe for disaster. But the city’s current daytime curfew policy bolsters a culture of suppression and enforcement that further exacerbates the yawning achievement gap and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. It sends students the insidious message that being late for school is a criminal act, rather than a social issue which caring adult providers, families, and communities must actively redress in order to serve the needs of struggling young people.Towards this end, Los Angeles City Councilmember Tony Cardenas introduced a Council motion that would revise daytime curfew laws to make them more culturally responsive to the needs of working class transit dependent students of color. The motion was passed by the City Council’s Safety Committee on February 13th and will go to the full Council for a vote on February 21st. It calls on the LAPD and School Police to end the practice of issuing citations with fines for truancy when minors are within range of their school sites. It also requires that the LAPD and School Police collect demographic data on the population of minors cited for truancy infractions. The Community Rights Campaign and allies such as Public Counsel and the ACLU are spearheading the effort to decriminalize truancy. In addition to the City Council motion, the coalition is urging law enforcement and school officials to consider programs that emphasize restorative justice and non-punitive conflict mediation approaches to addressing truancy. It is also recommending that school officials work with the MTA to develop policies that ease the burden on transit dependent youth who are often at the mercy of erratic bus schedules. By framing truancy as a systemic issue informed by multiple social, economic, and educational factors, the Community Rights Campaign is part of a growing movement that has emerged to challenge long-standing institutionally racist and classist discipline policies that disenfranchise youth of color in the LAUSD. Despite the 2008 implementation of the district’s so-called School Wide Positive Behavior Support System, egregious racial disparities in discipline are still rampant in the LAUSD. The entire City Council should get behind this motion and send a strong message to LAUSD that its culture of youth disenfranchisement will not be legitimized by law enforcement’s suppression tactics on the streets.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project, which is based at Gardena and Washington Prep High Schools. She is also the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels.