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Los Angeles Schools Seek To Reduce Student Arrests

In America’s second-largest city, students caught fighting or with small amounts of drugs at school won’t have to fear being turned over the police automatically, under new policies enacted by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

Under policies announced Tuesday, police assigned to schools in the LAUSD will no longer issue criminal citations and fines for offenses such as petty theft and fighting, and instead will direct students towards counseling services and other alternative disciplinary avenues.

Among the other crimes that call for non-criminal responses are possession of marijuana, possession or consumption of alcohol, vandalism of district property worth under $400, trespassing, theft of district property worth under $50, and minor battery.

Similar changes have been made in recent years both in other California districts as well as in Georgia, but with nearly 700,000 students LAUSD is by far the largest district to take action.

The changes are designed to cut down on what critics dub the “school to prison pipeline” in which students are written off as future criminals instead of making an active effort to salvage them. Said critics argue that arresting students encourages them to disengage with academic pursuits and makes dropping out more likely. They also argue that punishments are distributed in a discriminatory manner, with black students far more likely to face arrest.

The Community Rights Campaign of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which fought hard for the change, issued a statement expressing its strong approval.

“For too long our school playgrounds were minefields of penal code violations and criminalization – we believe this policy reverses that trend by prioritizing supportive and restorative approaches,” said Manuel Creollo, a lead organizer with the group.

Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based non-profit law firm, said that the change would hopefully serve as a model for other districts around the country.

“If fully implemented, this policy will move Los Angeles in the right direction to becoming a nationwide leader in putting intervention and support for struggling students before arrests and juvenile court time,” Public Counsel statewide education rights director Laura Faer said in a statement.

The policy has also been praised by judges in the state’s juvenile court system, who had complained of the system being overburdened with marginal cases.

The change is only the latest one in a series of efforts to reduce arrests at LA schools. In the 2010-2011 school year, over 10,700 citations were issued by police for behavior at school. Last year, that number had dropped to about 3,000, largely due to an agreement to cut down on police fines for truancy. The new policy figures to lower the total still further.

LAUSD’s effort is part of a broader backlash against so-called “zero tolerance” policies, which seek to curb student misbehavior by taking a tough approach to even relatively minor offenses. Such policies have been condemned by both Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Department of Justice has recently pressured schools to reduce the racial imbalance in school punishments.

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