The Center for Public Integrity has published an excellent article discussing the citations issued by the police force for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The article, entitled, “Los Angeles school police citations draw federal scrutiny,” describes how the Office of Civil Rights of the United States Department of Education is reviewing the practice of having police forces issue citations to students in connection with in-school conduct.

As discussed in a prior entry, these citations may involve minor misconduct, but can begin to create a criminal record for even young children.  Russlynn Ali, the Department’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, articulated the standard criticism of having police officers be involved in minor offenses.

“Generally speaking, in all but the most serious cases we would hope that district officials review a range of options … before referring students to the court system,”

It seems like the Obama Administration is, from a policy standpoint, on the right track.  But school discipline and law enforcement is an overwhelmingly local issue.  Ironically, one of the incidents that garnered the most attention took place at the Barack Obama Global Preparatory Academy in Los Angeles.

The incident started with a dispute on the basketball court and ended with the arrest of a 12-year-old, who later became my client. Here is how the Center of Public Integrity reported on what happened according to the young man’s father.

My son and a friend had gotten into a physical altercation over a basketball game, and school staff had summoned not parents, but police officers. Neither boy was injured, and the school ended up suspending his son for only one day, Johnson said. But officers wrote up a court citation and decided, on the spot, to also handcuff and arrest Johnson’s son as the alleged aggressor — after what Johnson believes was only a cursory look into what had happened.

So what did the court system do?

The court put the Johnson boy into an informal diversion program of four sessions of anger-management counseling, asked him to write a book report and urged him to continue to get good grades.

This is exactly the kind of “punishment” that could and should be handled by teachers and administrators. As a Los Angeles juvenile defense attorney, I know that it is prohibitively expensive and foolish to process these kinds of cases through the juvenile justice system. There is a growing consensus about this, which includes an increasing percentage of juvenile court judges. It took six months for me to get this case dismissed. That was the right result, but what a waste of resources, and what a misguided way to handle school discipline.

There are limits as to what the well-meaning officials of the Department of Education can accomplish from Washington. Their scrutiny can be helpful. But ultimately it will be up to local residents and officials to change the policy regarding the issuance of citations by school police forces.  That change won’t happen until more people are aware of the problem.   That is why I commend the Center of Public Integrity’s continuing efforts to shed light on this issue.


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