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NEXT L.A. | Ideas: Daytime Curfew

Controversy Builds Around Orange County Plans to Crack Down on Truancy

August 27, 1996|RUSS LOAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Concern over truancy and juvenile gangs has given rise to a heated debate in Orange County over a bid by local authorities to impose a countywide daytime curfew on school-age children.

The idea being considered would essentially force students from age 6 through 17 who are challenged by police between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on a school day to prove they are not playing hooky. Citations would require a court appearance with a parent or guardian.

Under a model ordinance already given preliminary approval by the City Council of La Habra, a first offense carries a $100 fine. The fine could be suspended if the student avoids further unexcused school absences, performs 20 hours of community service and takes part with a parent in counseling sessions. Parents could be required to attend a court-approved parenting class.

Battle lines are being drawn in city council and school board meetings throughout the county.

On the one side are proponents--an alliance of the county's police chiefs, school administrators and prosecutors--who say the ordinance they are pushing would put teeth into lax truancy laws for the first time in 20 years.

"We are losing the war against juvenile crime," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan Brown, who supervises the county's gang enforcement units. "This is an effort to stem that tide."

Resistance is growing among parents, civil libertarians and home-schooling advocates who warn that a daytime curfew could turn school-age children into second-class citizens.

Robyn Nordell, a Fullerton resident who runs a church-affiliated home-schooling program, said similar ordinances elsewhere have led to flagrant violations of young people's civil rights.

"On any given weekday, there are thousands of kids who legally have the right to be out in public," Nordell said. "They shouldn't be made into suspects simply because of their age."

Proponents of the daytime curfew had hoped to get all 31 cities and the Board of Supervisors to adopt the model ordinance before the start of school this year. But the proposal is facing stiff opposition in some cities.

Residents angrily denounced the idea during nearly two hours of public testimony last week at a Santa Ana Unified School District board meeting, where the curfew idea failed to win the board's endorsement.

"Most people I've talked to are all for keeping kids in school and reducing crime," Supt. Al Mijares said. "But what they don't want to do is create a standard that will not allow enough leeway for students who are legitimately out of school."

Because two-thirds of Santa Ana's 50,000 students are on year-round schedules, "a student could be legitimately away from school . . . at any given time during the school year," Mijares said.

In the city of Villa Park, Mayor Joseph Barsa is so appalled by the idea that he will ask the City Council this week to condemn the proposed ordinance and encourage other cities to do the same.

"They've already got all the authority they need, and if they want to put more teeth into it, then they should get the education laws changed in Sacramento," Barsa said. "I do remember the '40s and Hitler. This just smacks of that kind of thing, and I'm going to do everything I can to discourage it."

Curfew laws are growing in popularity as a law enforcement tool. President Clinton came to the San Gabriel Valley city of Monrovia in July to praise the city's efforts to fight juvenile crime, including the adoption of the nation's first daytime curfew ordinance in 1994.

Monrovia Police Chief Joe Santoro says that since the ordinance went into effect there has been a 41% reduction in unexcused absences from public schools, earning the school district $200,000 more in state attendance funds that would have been lost. Santoro also cites a 54% reduction in school dropout rates and a 38% reduction in juvenile crime during school hours.

"If the civil libertarians don't think this is right, then tell us what is," Santoro said. "Tell us what we can do to address this terrible problem. All they say is, don't do it."

Orange County's leading advocate of the daytime curfew, Deputy Dist. Atty. Kim Menninger, said the idea was born of the frustration educators and law enforcement officials feel when dealing with ineffective truancy laws.

The proposed ordinance, Menninger says, would bring swift punishment and provide a strong incentive for families to keep students in school. A third violation carries a maximum $500 fine.

Some critics worry that police will use the curfew as a pretext to detain minority students and add their names and photographs to the growing lists police keep of suspected gang members.

"My fears are that they're going to pick out people of different ethnicities, and a lot of these names will end up in the gang databases," said Daniel Tsang, a UC Irvine librarian and lecturer who has been critical of Irvine police for stopping Asian students late at night and photographing them as possible gang members.

Santa Ana High School student Ny Pin, 16, said he has friends on nontraditional school schedules who would probably be stopped by police because of their appearance.

"They already stop us sometimes because of the clothes we wear, if we are dressing in baggy clothes, like gang-type stuff," Pin said. He said police shouldn't "just stop us for nothing, that would be wrong."

*

Monrovia imposed the nation's first daytime curfew for students in 1994. Since then, the concept has spread. But in Orange County, the idea has spurred more division than consensus. To continue the discussion, send comments to one of the addresses at the top of the page and include your name and address. A selection will be published on the Next L.A. page.

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