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L.A.'s Top Officers Vow Crackdown on Students

THE STATE

Baca and Bratton say their agencies will begin aggressively enforcing truancy laws against youths walking out of class to join protests.

March 29, 2006|Kelly-Anne Suarez and J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles' two top law enforcement officials Tuesday vowed a crackdown on students who walk out of class as authorities struggled to quell a third day of widespread demonstrations against immigration policy.

More than 12,000 students across Southern California defied Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and school officials by participating in a new round of marches Tuesday, including one that blocked traffic on the San Diego Freeway in Van Nuys and a second in which protesters tried to stymie the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.

Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said at a joint news conference that their agencies would begin aggressively enforcing truancy laws. Bratton said his officers will now cite any students found out of school, requiring them to appear in court. The citations could result in fines of up to $200 and 20 days of community service.

Bratton said about 100 students were cited for truancy in San Pedro on Tuesday. He noted that about 500 walked onto the Harbor Freeway as part of their protest.

"That's not free speech; that's insanity," he said.

Youths waving Mexican flags and wearing white T-shirts took to the streets for the second day running, though not in the large numbers that turned out Monday.

And as a measure of the importance of the issue in immigrant population centers, the marches spread to other cities in California, as well as in Texas and Nevada.

Villaraigosa said that more than 11,600 students from throughout the county were involved in the Tuesday protests -- compared with more than 30,000 on Monday.

The mayor said that law enforcement officials have been restrained in dealing with protesting students up to now but that beginning today, the city would be "very strongly applying our truancy laws."

Referring to students who had walked on freeways in an attempt to disrupt traffic, Villaraigosa called such actions "an unsafe situation that we can't tolerate."

Long Beach schools Supt. Chris Steinhauser posted a letter to parents on his district's website, warning that students would face increasingly severe consequences if protests continued.

About 1,000 Long Beach middle and high school students stayed out of school in protest for a second day Tuesday.

In Santa Ana, schools Supt. Al Mijares said he is also urging parents to help by telling their children to stop the protests. "Parents think they're in school with us," he said.

In various parts of Los Angeles, the day was marked by scuffles, lockdowns and truancy citations.

Stephanie Brady, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said roughly 8,500 students walked out of schools in protest, a sharp drop from the 27,000 who marched Monday. The district could lose $28.60 in state education funding for each of them, a total of just over $1 million for the two days.

The district is entitled, however, to appeal to the state Department of Education, Brady said, and argue that the protests were "circumstances beyond our control."

"That's obviously what we'll do," she said.

Brady denied that any students were bused from their schools to the demonstrations. "Absolutely not," she said. "We are not busing from schools to City Hall. We're taking them from City Hall back to their schools."

At issue is a bill being debated in the U.S. Senate that would make it a federal offense to enter the United States illegally. The bill passed the House of Representatives last December.

Besides Los Angeles, walkouts were reported in San Diego, Riverside and Fresno counties, as well as in Texas and Nevada.

The student demonstrations are an outgrowth of protests held in response to the immigration reform proposals, which hit a high point over the weekend when 500,000 people gathered to demand amnesty and civil rights protection for illegal immigrants.

In Carson, sheriff's deputies dressed in riot gear scuffled briefly with students who threw plastic water bottles and other items at police.

What began as a convergence of peaceful marches at Carson High School escalated into a scuffle in which three students were arrested.

The incident began when police, using their patrol cars, tried to steer the marchers into the school's parking lot after they refused to stay on the sidewalk, said Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Zymkowitz, who said the protesters were originally headed for Carson's City Hall.

He said the 50 deputies trying to steer the marchers were pelted with lemons, limes, bottles and other food students found on the street.

Zymkowitz said deputies responded with what he described as a minimum amount of force, which students said included pepper spray and nightsticks.

Adrian Mora, an Avalon High School junior who ended up with the crowd at Carson High, said he held on to his two younger brothers when police weighed in.

"A lot of the little kids were crying. It was so scary," he said.

He decried the notion that students were just looking for a reason to cut class, saying they understood the issues, if not the details, of the immigration legislation.

"Put yourself in our position. So many things here are picked by us, made by us, prepared by us. Do they really not want us here?" he asked rhetorically. "They may look at us [students] and think we're dumb, but we're just here to help the people we love."

Times staff writers Cynthia H. Cho, Richard Winton, Michelle Keller, Juliet Chung and Stephen Clark contributed to this report.

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