Students and activists protesting the truancy law gather at Van Nuys City… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
The two groups of high school protesters — one dressed as graduates with caps and gowns, the other donning orange jail jumpsuits — huddled together outside Van Nuys City Hall on Monday chanting: "Pre-med! Pre-jobs! Not pre-prison!"
Inside, a special meeting of the City Council's Public Safety Committee discussed a proposal that would strike down a long-standing law allowing police to cite students who are late to class.
About 100 high school students dressed up to depict what they called the criminalization of students for tardiness. For many, it was their first real-life lesson in democracy.
Public interest lawyers and advocates cited statistics that show the current law unfairly targets Latinos, blacks and low-income students while doing little to curb truancy.
And the council members agreed.
"There are students who are on their way to school and this is a deterrent for them to go to school," Councilman Mitch Englander said. "So if they are running late at all, often times, they choose not to go at all because they are scared of getting that citation. So it makes no sense."
After almost an hour of testimony, the five-member panel agreed to pass the proposal to the full City Council. It would put into place an agreement made in April between civil rights attorneys from Public Counsel and the ACLU, among others, and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Under that deal, the LAPD stopped ticketing students for truancy during the first hour of class and halted its daytime curfew sweeps except when there was suspected criminal activity by youths in the school area.
Since the new police procedures went into effect, there has been a 51.8% drop in truancy tickets issued between April and July 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.
The plan calls for community service to replace the hefty fines for first- and second-time offenders. The punishment for three or more violations is still under debate, but supporters hope to significantly reduce the financial burden on students and their families.
Under the LAPD's current truancy policy, students who are ticketed for tardiness receive fines up to $250. However, the cost can balloon to $860 after mandatory court fees are added.
"They are criminalizing kids for coming to school late," said Laura Faer, education rights director for Public Counsel, a nonprofit public interest law firm. "It's backward in every way."
The goal of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other groups has been to keep students in school. They argue that the current ticketing system burdens parents and students because the mandatory court appearance requires students to miss class and even causes parents to lose wages as they have to accompany their children to court.
Nabil Romero was a senior at the Edward Roybal Learning Center when he received a ticket. That March morning, his mother was unable to take him to school so he had to take two buses. Romero arrived a few minutes after first period started. Police approached the then-17-year old as he was walking up to the school. Romero said he was handcuffed, searched and ticketed.
Romero and his mother tried to fight the citation. Still, the judge imposed a fine that totaled $350. The family had to cut back on food and clothing to pay the fine, he said.
"This was all my fault because I was not in class," he said.