Criminalizing Kids

Published — November 27, 2013 Updated — June 16, 2015 at 9:41 am ET

Nation’s largest school police force, in L.A., will stop ticketing kids 12 and younger

Center reports, rights groups documented huge volume of citations critics said didn’t belong in criminal-justice system


Los Angeles Unified School District Police Chief, Steve Zipperman, speaks at a December 2012 news conference about the school shooting in Connecticut. LAPD Commander Andrew Smith appears in background.
 Nick Ut/AP

Responding to demand for reforms, the nation’s largest school police force — in Los Angeles — will stop issuing tickets to students 12-years-old or younger for minor infractions allegedly committed on or near campuses during school hours.

A memo this month to officers from Los Angeles Unified School Police Department Chief Steven Zipperman outlined the new policy, which goes into effect in December. The announcement comes in the wake of community demands for the school district to “decriminalize” minor school disciplinary matters and use more discretion when involving law enforcement personnel.

The post-Newtown push to place more police in schools nationwide makes it more urgent to set standards for officers’ roles, some juvenile court judges and others have warned.

In 2012, in a series of reports, the Center for Public Integrity and KPCC radio documented the citations of thousands of kids in middle school and even some elementary schools for disturbing the peace, graffiti, marijuana and cigarette possession, truancy, trespassing, jaywalking and other allegations.

The new age-limit policy in Los Angeles, Zipperman said, includes room for exceptions “when all other methods of an officer and/or school administrator [for a] ‘teachable moment’ learning objective cannot be accomplished.”

The Labor-Community Strategy Center, an organization that has pushed for reforms, called the new policy “one step bringing us closer to the models called for by students and community members for several years…to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline impacts” at L.A. Unified.

However, in a letter to Zipperman and L.A. Unified school board member Monica Garcia, the group also urged district officials to move forward in defining the role of police at schools and setting guidelines for when the force’s 300-plus officers should get involved in school matters.

Earlier this year, the district’s board of trustees adopted a School Climate Bill of Rights that calls for defining the role of police. The policy also prohibits out-of-school suspensions for “willful defiance,” a vague charge which some critics said leaves students further behind academically and on their own at home — or on the streets — unsupervised.

Children’s rights advocates have argued for several years that some Los Angeles school staff had begun to summon police too often to deal with minor disciplinary matters often involving young children. Ticketed students were mostly Latino, black and in low-income areas.

Juvenile-court judges, too, began objecting to the ticketing and to police sweeps that were catching tardy kids and forcing them to go to court.

Judges said that too many children were being ushered into the criminal-justice system at a young age, when counseling and other family services would be more appropriate.

In October, the Labor-Community Strategy Center issued a report analyzing recent police ticketing data. The group found that more than 48 percent of approximately 4,740 school police tickets issued during the 2012-2013 school year were given to kids 14 or younger. Students who were 12 or 11 received 545 tickets. The single biggest offense for younger kids was disturbing the peace.

In calendar year 2011, records examined by the Center for Public Integrity showed that more than 960 kids 12 and younger were ticketed. More than 10,200 tickets in all were issued to students that year, with more than 43 percent going to kids 14 and younger.

In April of 2012, two first graders, six and seven, were ticketed after they got into a shoving match and the mother of one called police, the principal of the kids’ school told the Center. In September, the Center found, a 10-year-old was ticketed for trespassing.

Getting a ticket used to mean that students were forced to miss school and appear in court with parents — and pay dollar fines or perform community service. Students were saddled with misdemeanor records if they didn’t show up at court, which many failed to do.

Last year, with the closure of Los Angeles County’s lower-level juvenile courts, school police began forwarding tickets for truancy directly to counseling centers in the city and tickets for other infractions to Los Angeles County Probation officials. Probation officers’ task is to review the tickets and assign kids and families to appropriate counseling or other services in an effort to avoid court involvement.

The volume of tickets issued to students in Los Angeles was far greater during previous years than citations issued to students in any comparably sized metropolitan district, including New York City’s.

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