(c) Richard Ross / Juvenile in Justice

LA schools to end zero-tolerance policies and criminalization of students

Critics say policy created 'school-to-prison pipeline' that unfairly targeted minorities, lessened chances of graduation

The nation’s second largest school district will stop criminalizing students for low-level offenses as part of wider reforms relating to controversial zero-tolerance policies, officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District announced Tuesday.

Under previous policies, students would face arrest or citations for nonviolent violations including possessing alcohol or marijuana on campus. Now, such students will be sent to the principle’s office or be given mandatory counseling.

Activists welcomed the decision, saying it will help stem the so-called school-to-prison pipeline that they argue unfairly targets minorities. The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ refers to a nationwide system of policies that push students out of school and into the juvenile criminal justice systems for minor offenses such as goofing off in class or showing up late.

“There are enough studies that show bringing them into the justice system is really more of a slippery slope that leads to negative outcomes and poor futures,” Michael Nash, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Courts, told the New York Times. “The people who are in these schools need to deal with these issues, not use the courts as an outlet. We have to change our attitude and realize that the punitive approach clearly hasn’t worked.”

The new policies will be implemented in the current school year. Under the reformed system, if a student is caught misbehaving, a school police officer must follow a step-by-step guide directing students to interventions on or off campus. Under the previous policy, students would be sent to court or probation.

Such “zero-tolerance” policies used by schools across the nation will be scaled back in some Los Angeles schools as part of a wider push-back against such disciplining after President Barack Obama in January issued reforms emphasizing alternatives to criminalizing students.

Students with criminal records are less likely to graduate and significantly more likely to be incarcerated as an adult, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which added that youth of color or those with disabilities are disproportionately targeted by this policy.

Around 93 percent of the approximately 9,000 arrests and tickets issued to students in the 2011-2012 school year involved African American and Latino students, data provided by the district to the Labor/Community Strategy Center showed.

The Los Angeles district covers more than 640,000 students and nearly 1,100 schools, making it among the largest school districts to change its zero-tolerance policy.

Increasing numbers of police officers in schools has paralleled the rise in criminalization of students. The number of school police officers increased 38 percent from 1997-2007, according to the Department of Justice.

“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 assisted in negotiating the district’s policy changes.

With wire services

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