Dozens of school-age youngsters celebrating the last days of summer were picked up, searched and detained by police in a two-day Westside "truancy sweep" last week. The sweep netted a number of kids who just couldn't resist ditching school on a flawless day. But, it also netted a few children--on rollerblades and skateboards--whose schools had not yet opened and were still on vacation.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials and community groups say the sweeps are aimed at reminding students and their parents that Los Angeles schools started last month and at breaking truancy patterns that lead to dropping out.
"We are targeting those who are just starting a pattern of truancy, usually in junior high," explained Karen Crowl, a counselor with the district's Operation Stay in School. "At this point, they are not yet serious delinquents."
The sweeps, which will be repeated periodically, drew both praise and concern. Many lauded it as an effort to reduce daytime crime, much of which police say is committed by juveniles, and to prevent school dropouts.
But others charge that the procedures used, however well-intentioned, trample civil liberties and have not been shown to be effective.
The young detainees, whether tearful or surly, legitimately out on the street or playing hooky, were taken to the Penmar Recreation Center in Venice and questioned at length by school district and community counselors--not just about why they weren't in school but about their families, lifestyles and problems in an effort to identify a possible need for outside help or counseling. Students who were still on vacation were also advised to carry identification cards issued by their schools unless they want to spend several hours in police custody again.
Authorities at the recreation center called schools to verify or debunk the students' stories, then telephoned parents to tell them where their children were.
Some parents were dumbfounded: "Jeez, I dropped him off (at school) at 10 till 8," one mother told Crowl. Her child had been picked up by police at 9:30 a.m.
Arriving to pick up their children, parents were met by staffers from Project HEAVY West, a community youth counseling service, who tried to ascertain why the youngsters were not in school and offered free help for family problems that could be interfering.
"We want to make an impact on them and their families," said Carmen Gonzales of Youth WINS (Westsiders Investing in New Solutions), the community group that initiated the sweeps. "They need to know that they should be in school and that someone is keeping track of it."
Officers from the Los Angeles Police Department's Pacific Division picked up 64 youngsters during two mornings, only nine of whom turned out to be students at private schools or out-of-district schools that hadn't yet begun.
Two turned out to be runaways already missing for several days. One was reported to child abuse authorities as a possible victim. A pregnant girl and her boyfriend were picked up en route to a medical clinic. One boy had been suspended for bringing a Taser stun gun to school. Two others, sporting gang garb, were headed away from school. Some were picked up near their homes; others were rounded up at fast food outlets and mini-malls.
One 13-year-old in a Bart Simpson "Don't have a cow" T-shirt was rollerblading two blocks from home when police scooped him up; the school he attends doesn't begin until next week. "I thought they stopped me 'cause I wasn't wearing a helmet," he said, choking back tears while he waited several hours for a ride home in a school district van.
Los Angeles Police Lt. Phil Roberts said 10 uniformed officers, in six patrol cars, participated in the unusual sweep.
"We look for what appear to be school-age children, and stop and question them," Roberts said. If they don't have a valid excuse--such as a school pass--we pick them up and take them to PHW (Project HEAVY West, which has offices at the recreation center)."
Roberts said the detainments, which include a cursory pat-down for weapons, (one reputed gang member was found to be carrying a screwdriver) are "usually not a problem. We use uniformed officers; they (suspected truants) are not sneaked up on."
Stephen Singleton, a Project HEAVY West counselor, said reasons given by the truants are as varied as the kids themselves. "But they belong in school, not at the Burger King." He said the sweep has a special urgency this year, both because public schools opened a month early and because gang crimes are up in the Venice-Mar Vista area.
Such sweeps are unusual on the Westside.
"They are an effective tool, and are used regularly in certain parts of the city," said Jeff Crain, deputy for Westside school board member Mark Slavkin. "We rarely have them on the Westside, where truancy rates are lower than a lot of areas."
Westside attendance rates drop from an average 95% in elementary school to 90% in junior high and 85% in high school, he said.