Ticketing towards prisons: LAUSD’s truancy tickets and the pre-prisoning of our youth
by Lisa Adler on Thursday, March 19, 2009
For the past 2 months, Taking Action student organizers at Westchester and Cleveland High Schools have collected over 700 surveys documenting truancy tickets, the conduct of school police and rates of suspensions. We have also conducted several focus groups with students about their personal experiences. This blog is the first in a series in which the Community Rights campaign shares our impressions and findings.
Did you ever come late to school? Of course, we all did at least a few times.
And I'm sure the reasons varied. Maybe your alarm clock didn't go off. Maybe the bus was late. Maybe you had stayed up late the night before cramming for a test. Maybe you were procrastinating because you didn't want to deal with the school life drama you knew awaited you. Whatever the reason, we all know that coming late to school was part of growing up.
Do you remember what happened when you did come late? Some of us probably just went straight to class, got a look by the teacher, a warning this would affect our grade. Maybe some of us had to serve detention when the tardies started adding up.
Well, times have changed.
These truancy tickets are part of a broader shift in educational policy. Public schools are now using tickets as a form of discipline and employing police-not teachers, not counselors-as the first responders. It is part of a "zero tolerance" philosophy that emphasizes punitive policies, law enforcement, and courts as the "necessary" solutions, creating conditions of "pre-prisons" rather than educational environments for our Black and Brown youth who make up the majority of our public schools.
And so our young people now face ticketing as a daily reality. They get tickets for fighting. Tickets for going off campus at lunch without permission. Tickets for skateboarding on school campus without a helmet. And, truancy tickets for being tardy.
So, you're 15 mins late and in handcuffs. The fine is $250.
Andre (names have been changed to protect privacy), a 9th grade Latino, got a truancy ticket at 8:03am on his way to school. He and his friends were handcuffed and when they told the officer that the cuffs were hurting their hands, he responded "Too bad, I am the one who runs this show."
Shavette and Jamie, two young Black women I interviewed at one of the focus groups, got truancy tickets at 8:15am getting off the bus a few blocks from school. It's one of the bus lines that is so crowded it often passes students up, forcing them to wait for the next one (and be late).
Why isn't MTA getting a ticket for not providing enough bus service for students?
Can you imagine if teachers got tickets when they were late to work? Just picture the headline: "Police get tough on teachers, $250 tickets given to two teachers who arrive late after traffic jam on the 405."
Going to court: The ticket is only the beginning
When you get a citation you have to go to court on a weekday. Yes, that means missing a school day. And your parent/guardian has to go as well, so they have to miss a work day, too.
The lost time is only half of the problem. The citations are expensive. And they can go up with added court fees. There are ways to bring down the cost of your tickets such as taking a Saturday class. But no matter what, you end up paying significant money-up to $55 for the class and $35 for the certificate.
Consequences: "Why is it the poor people who get the highest tickets?"
80% of LAUSD students are Title I, meaning their families are below the poverty line. That means truancy tickets are given overwhelmingly to low-income, majority Black and Brown youth whose families are now going to pay money they most certainly do not have at their disposal. As 11th-grader Heaven pointed out, "Why is it the poor people who get the highest tickets?" Her point resonates-is it really the upper middle class private school kids getting these fines? Of course not.
One young man I spoke to told me that he had gotten several tickets when he was 14. He was going through a rough time in his life and he didn't make it to court and he didn't pay the fines. What he didn't know was that his unpaid tickets were forwarded to the DMV. Five years later, he got himself back on his feet and was going to a continuation school, working to get his high school diploma. When his class took a day trip to the DMV to help the students get licenses (something you need for many jobs), he was painfully rejected and told he owed hundreds of dollars because of unpaid truancy tickets! So here he is, a young man trying to get his diploma and go to community college (with rising tuitions remember), and before he gets in the door he already owes hundreds of dollars for tickets he got when he was 14-years-old.
Dozens of students have told us that the risk of getting a ticket deters them from going to school when they are running late. In other words, these tickets are actually contributing to full day absences, since neither the students nor the parents want to risk such an expensive ordeal.
Your option is to have your mother arrested or fined
Lanicia, another young woman I interviewed, has 3 tickets - 2 for being caught ditching and 1 for being late. She has not gone to court because her mom can't miss work and her aunty and grandma (who could go) do not count as her legal guardian. What should Shavette do? According to a referee I spoke to (they are the acting judges at the Juvenile Traffic Court), she can go to a Pupil Services Counselor who can get the LASPD to "make" her mom go to court. So basically, her option is to arrest or fine her own mother for not being able to miss her job, or pay the tickets with money she does not have.
If the system wants to ticket anyone for "non-compliance," it should begin by ticketing itself
Should young people be expected to go to school on time? Should there be consequences for being truant? Of course. But the system should also be expected to ensure that schools are adequate learning environments, with enough resources to ensure culturally relevant, quality education.
Instead, we have schools that have more cops than counselors. Westchester High School, for example, had no permanent college counselor for an entire year but had two police officers. Instead of giving our children a good education, we have a curriculum that increasingly just wants to teach them how to take tests. Instead of doing everything possible to keep students in school, the system is pushing them out-through ticketing, through rampant suspension, through "zero tolerance" discipline-to boost test scores.
Breaking the connection from schools to prisons
We must question and challenge the whole notion of bringing law enforcement, tickets and the courts into student discipline issues.
The prison system is already bursting at the seams because of discriminatory laws and racialized sentencing. The vast majority of the 2.3 million adults in prison are Black and Latino men and women. By criminalizing student life, school disciplinary policies and practices are turning our schools into "pre-prisons," pushing Black and Latino youth to the teetering edge of an adult prison system waiting to snatch them up at younger and younger ages.
The Community Rights Campaign is working to challenge truancy tickets and the pre-prison conditions of our schools. We need your stories, your ideas, your involvement. Please call us (213) 387-2800 to get involved.
*According to Los Angeles municipal code 45.04, citations are "not to exceed $250." However, we have been made aware by a Referee (the acting judges who preside over the truancy cases) that the fines have increased recently to be $301 for the second tickets and $985 for the third. This is likely due to increased court fees as the municipal code remains at $250. We will be updating you shortly on whether these added fees have been made official.