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STREET SWEEP : School District, Police Combine in Operation Stay-in-School to Fight Truancy

December 06, 1987|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

The 16-year-old Hamilton High School junior maintained her innocence as she sat in the Wilshire Division police station, nervously awaiting the arrival of her uncle who had been called to pick her up.

"I just left school for lunch, I wasn't playing hooky," she said. "I feel humiliated. They are treating me like a criminal, and I don't think it's fair."

The worried teen-ager was picked up by police in a doughnut shop about six miles from the Hamilton campus. When she was unable to explain why she was not in school, she was taken into custody, transported to the station house and turned over to a school counselor.

"You should have known not to hang out in a doughnut shop--there are too many police officers there," joked one of the officers.

The neatly dressed student failed to see the humor in his remark. One brush with the law was enough to convince her that truancy does not pay. "This is the first and last time I'm ever going to leave school without permission," she snapped.

She was among 20 students rounded up off the streets by police one day last week and handed over to school officials at the Wilshire station. It is part of Operation Stay-in-School, a 13-year-old program designed to cut truancy.

Last year, police delivered 15,000 students to 11 truancy centers operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District. The Wilshire Division picked up about 3,100 students, more than twice as many as any other division in the city.

And the division continues to hold the lead this year, bringing in more than 90 students a week to the second-floor roll-call room where a school counselor and an assistant operate the Operation Stay-in-School office.

"I think it is a dynamite program, as good as any one that we have," said Wilshire Capt. Ernest E. Curtsinger. "We bring the students in off the streets every day, and I believe that is one of the main reasons why the number of burglaries have declined in our division."

Curtsinger said that because of the crackdown on truancy in the Wilshire division, burglaries have declined by 18% in one year from 3,518 last year to 2,883. However, burglaries have declined citywide by 17%, including areas where the program does not operate.

On most days, there are four officers in two cars assigned to pick up stray students in the Wilshire Division, which is bounded by the Santa Monica Freeway, Beverly Boulevard, La Cienega Boulevard and Normandie Avenue.

Truancy is prohibited by state education law, which allows police to detain youngsters age 6 to 18 who are not in school during school hours. The police take them to the centers, where they are counseled by school officials and their parents are notified.

Operation Stay-in-School was started in 1974 after research studies indicated that daylight crime committed by juveniles increases with rises in truancy, said Ed Davis, the program's coordinator.

Critics of the program, including Los Angeles school board President Rita Walters, say that the detention of students under the program violates their constitutional right against unreasonable searches.

"An adult can not be stopped without a reasonable suspicion of having committed a crime, so why are we picking up kids and carting them off to detention centers?" said Walters.

"I would rather see us do more counseling and working with parents to solve the problem (of truancy)," she said. "I don't think taking a student who has been ditching class to a detention center is the proper response, but I am outvoted on that one."

In September, the state Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law in a case involving an Orange County youngster. The case, which is being appealed to the U. S. Supreme Court, involved a 17-year-old youth who had graduated from high school but was stopped by police in Newport Beach in 1983 as a truancy suspect. When the youth failed to produce identification, the police searched him and found a small amount of LSD.

Los Angeles school officials said that the case points out the need for students to carry identification, particularly as the number of year-round schools expands, requiring students to take their vacations at varying times of the years.

"They are always saying that they are off-track (on vacation), but if they don't carry their identification, then it is hard for us to tell whether or not they are telling the truth," said Officer Harold Schwabe, a 12-year veteran in the Wilshire Division's juvenile detail.

1,000 Detained

Davis said that students should carry cards indicating when they are on vacation. Police detained about 1,000 students from year-round schools last year. Some who failed to carry their school cards were later found to be out of school for legitimate reasons. They were returned to the area where they were found.

Donald Ayoob, the Orange County public defender who is appealing the Newport Beach case, said that the ruling upholding the right of police officers to question people solely because they look young reminds him of totalitarian governments.

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