In Class, Out of Court: How One School District Triumphed Over Truancy

During a session with a student at Spokane’s North Central High School, truancy board members Macy Pate and Justin Mauger listen intently as the teen explains why he was missing school. Pate is a counselor at the school. Mauger works for the local YMCA. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
During a session with a student at Spokane’s North Central High School, truancy board members Macy Pate and Justin Mauger listen intently as the teen explains why he was missing school. Pate is a counselor at the school. Mauger works for the local YMCA. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Times

SPOKANE, Washington — Christine Ellenwood hid the first two letters from her Spokane high school last fall, warning her that skipping class was against the law.

She was living with her older brother and didn’t want him to know she had missed so much school that she risked juvenile detention for herself and possible fines for him. But she couldn’t hide from her school.

The day after she received the second letter, the 16-year-old was summoned into a classroom to face her counselor and a roomful of strangers, called together as part of one of the most successful truancy-prevention efforts in the state.

They told her they were there to help, not punish her, but they needed to know why she wasn’t showing up until second or third period most mornings.

She started crying.

Martin Kolodrub, a bearish-looking man with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, followed up on a hunch based on years of experience.

“Do you have to take care of your siblings?” he asked.

Christine looked down, too scared to meet his eyes, but answered yes, revealing her long-held secret.

She’d never told anyone at school that she cooked breakfast for her younger brother and sister, got them dressed, fixed her sister’s hair, waited until her brother climbed aboard his bus for kindergarten and then rode the city bus with her sister to preschool.

In Spokane, a collaboration of schools, the court and the community is designed to tackle the root causes of truancy. Here, a student, a principal and a truancy specialist discuss what they’ve learned. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
In Spokane, a collaboration of schools, the court and the community is designed to tackle the root causes of truancy. Here, a student, a principal and a truancy specialist discuss what they’ve learned. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Kolodrub’s question finally made her realize she was in over her head — and she wasn’t alone.

The adults in the room, officially known as the school’s community truancy board, started with a simple but important step: rearranging her schedule so she could start later in the morning.

The board — a collaboration of the school, the courts and community organizations — is designed to tackle the root causes of truancy, the goal behind a 20-year-old state law requiring school districts to take legal action when kids miss too many days.

But 70 percent of the state’s 295 school districts don’t have such boards — or any other truancy program — to provide that help. They simply send kids to court for a stern lecture and the threat of detention, an approach most agree has failed.

One study, done for the state Supreme Court, found that only 15 percent of Washington students sent to court for truancy graduate on time. A second, also done for the court this year, said just one-third of such students graduate or earn a GED.

But the results in Spokane County are much better, especially in the West Valley School District, which has helped as many as 82 percent of truant students earn a diploma or GED.

That’s what inspired Ellenwood’s school district — Spokane Public Schools — to start its own board.

Other counties, including King County, also have found some success with group workshops, also designed to keep kids out of court.

But West Valley’s approach has produced the best results to date, inspiring not just Spokane, but other districts to try truancy boards, too, including a recent push to launch them in eight districts in Pierce County.

The boards are not easy to do well.

Highline abandoned one after two years when grant money ran out. Seattle tried a few boards in the late 1990s, but the district also ran out of money and momentum.

Community truancy boards require strong cooperation between schools, courts and community groups — and passionate advocates such as Kolodrub, who was so important to West Valley’s success that researchers call his contributions “the Martin effect.”

But West Valley shows that they can be worth the money. Although a 2013 study showed that two Spokane boards (the one in West Valley and another at one Spokane high school) cost about $200,000 per year, it also found that they saved taxpayers as much as $68 million — the estimated price of lost tax revenues and increased social services associated with dropouts.

Weekly community truancy board hearings are held for students at Spokane’s North Central High School. The board ‐ a collaboration of the school, the court and community organizations — is designed to tackle the root causes of truancy. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Weekly community truancy board hearings are held for students at Spokane’s North Central High School. The board ‐ a collaboration of the school, the court and community organizations — is designed to tackle the root causes of truancy. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Becca Law

Before 1995, school districts seldom involved the juvenile courts in truancy cases.

That’s the year the Legislature passed the Becca Law, named after Rebecca Hedman, a 13-year-old Tacoma girl who ran away from home and was found murdered in Spokane.

Skipping school wasn’t the main focus of the law, which gave parents the right to commit runaway children to counseling centers against their will.

Yet because chronic truancy often predicts later trouble, the Becca Law also requires districts to send students and their families to court if students rack up seven unexcused absences in a single month or 10 in a year.

The idea was that the threat of juvenile detention for kids and fines for parents would send a stronger message to families than just another visit to the principal’s office.

From the beginning, the law recommended truancy boards as a way to help solve kids’ underlying problems without sending them to court.

But 20 years later, only 51 school districts have them — even with strong evidence of what good they can do.

[Related: What Science, Common Sense Tell Us About Kids and the Law]

A 2000 legislative report, for example, found that in Seattle Public Schools, sending truant students to court had no effect on whether those students remained in school.

That’s not encouraging, given how many truancy cases the state’s courts now handle — about 11,300 a year, nearly equal to all other juvenile-court cases combined.

And for reasons not well understood, that caseload reflects only about a third of the students whose chronic absences warrant court involvement.

West Valley, with nearly 4,000 students, was one of the first in the state to create a truancy board composed of educators, school counselors and parent volunteers.

They quickly learned that the stereotype of the truant who thumbs his nose at school fit very few of the students they met.

Marcia Glenn, who tracks truancy full time for the district, still remembers one boy who, back in the board’s first year in 1996, stayed home because his mother’s boyfriend wouldn’t beat her if the fifth-grader was home.

With its initial boards, West Valley was able to keep a third of its chronically truant students out of court by drawing up contracts with them and their parents, with the promise that they wouldn’t have to go to court if they fulfilled them.

Then in 2004, the district persuaded social-service agencies, churches, job programs and other organizations to join the board, too, so they could offer help.

With that change, 80 percent of the district’s chronically truant students never ended up in courtrooms.

But the district didn’t stop there. They wanted to reach the last 20 percent, too, and decided they needed an ambassador from the court system to work with kids day to day.

That guy turned out to be Martin Kolodrub.

Martin Kolodrub, who oversees truancy programs for Spokane County Juvenile Court, spends much of his time in the field at kids’ homes, schools, truancy board hearings and in court. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Martin Kolodrub, who oversees truancy programs for Spokane County Juvenile Court, spends much of his time in the field at kids’ homes, schools, truancy board hearings and in court. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Soft spot for underdogs

Kolodrub started out at West Valley’s Spokane Valley High School in 2007, after the Spokane Juvenile Court received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation to study whether West Valley’s truancy board was working as well it seemed.

Principal Larry Bush agreed to be part of the study, but he wanted something in return — a court-paid specialist to work in his school and others in the district to help make sure that kids followed through on the plans spelled out at the community truancy board.

His partner in that deal also happened to be his wife, Bonnie Bush, the court administrator.

She chose Kolodrub for the job, a probation officer with a passion for helping such kids — the plain-spoken son of a construction worker who grew up in one of Spokane’s poorest neighborhoods and had a soft spot for underdogs.

First, Kolodrub had to overcome years of mutual distrust between the school system and the judicial system.

He stepped on a lot of toes as he learned how the school operated, finding out the hard way which teachers would let him take students out of class to talk, for example.

“It was an extremely uncomfortable first three or four months for me,” he said.

But he eventually won over teachers and students, using a system to make sure he checked in with the right kids at the right time. He asked them detailed questions about their lives so he could get them the right support, and he went to bat for them with teachers and principals when they needed an ally.

“I didn’t sell myself,” he said. “The kids I worked with sold me to their friends.”

He also helped kids out of embarrassing situations that kept them out of class, like the teen he noticed wearing ratty shoes held together with duct tape. By that time, Kolodrub was carrying sneakers in the trunk of his car, along with lice kits and other supplies.

For some students, that kind of support made Kolodrub the one adult at school they didn’t want to disappoint.

“Kids used to come to me and say: Martin, I did this for you,” he said. “Here I am, some schmuck working for the government and I’ve got somebody telling me that. That was the best feeling ever.”

National model

With Kolodrub working in West Valley’s schools, the number of truant students that West Valley sent to court dropped from 20 percent to about 6 percent, which has held fairly steady since 2012, when the grant money ran out and Kolodrub returned to juvenile court.

Other districts in the juvenile court’s jurisdiction — including Mead and Spokane public schools — have since started their own community truancy boards.

The MacArthur Foundation promotes West Valley as a national model, and local officials developed a step-by-step guide after they were swamped by calls from all over the country asking how they did it.

One question is whether the success in West Valley can be achieved elsewhere without “the Martin effect.” Larry Bush says he could go into any district in the state and find someone who could be a “Martin.” Kolodrub agrees.

“I didn’t do anything that was rocket science,” he said. “I treated kids like individuals and I helped them with their individual needs.”

One recent fall morning, Kolodrub observed the community truancy board at North Central High School — the same one where he had helped turn Christine Ellenwood’s life around the year before.

Nathan Hall was there with his 16-year-old son.

The board’s members challenged some of the son’s excuses for missing school, like his hypothesis that he might have been poisoned by the nacho sauce he ate in a food class.

But they could see that he was bright enough to pursue his dream of becoming an entrepreneur and one of the board members told him about a YMCA after-school program that could help him improve his algebra grades.

Kolodrub said later that the teen was a fence-walker — a smart guy who could go either way — his favorite kind of kid to help.

Earlier that morning, out in the hall, Kolodrub saw Ellenwood and gave her a hug.

She had once been on the fence, too.

But after six difficult months away from her family at a Bremerton military school her counselor told her about, she was back at North Central for her senior year, on track for graduation.

“I want to go to school,” she said. “I want to finish school. I want to go into the military. I want to be a nurse.”

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or On Twitter @jhigginsST

This story originally appeared in The Seattle Times.

Education Lab is a project of The Seattle Times that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education.

More related articles:

Collaboration Seeks to Divert Kids from Juvenile Justice System

Cops in Schools Need Special Training About Children and Trauma

Grant Hopes to Cut the Number of Kids Who Cut Class

Report: Girls Face ‘Sex-Abuse-To-Prison Pipeline’

The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story
Click to read the full report “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”

The numbers are huge: An Oregon study found that 93 percent of girls in the state’s juvenile justice system had been sexually or physically abused at some time. South Carolina research found that 81 percent of girls in its system had experienced sexual abuse.

Some are victims of sex trafficking. Some who have been abused run away from home and are truant. Some have been abused in the foster care system.

“It’s far more than the vast majority of people are aware of,” said Peter Edelman, faculty director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The center, along with the Ms. Foundation and the Human Rights Project for Girls, released a new report Thursday: “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.”

It pulls together the story of traumatized girls — and a story of punishment instead of assistance.

“Girls, and disproportionately black and brown girls, are, incredibly, being locked up when they’ve run away from an abusive parent or when they have been trafficked for sex as children,” said co-author Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls.

[Related: When We Fail To Ask Why: Sexually Abused Girls Funneled into Juvenile Justice System]

“But their stories of unjust arrest and incarceration have been marginalized,” she said.

Once girls are arrested, they enter a system that is often poorly equipped to identify their needs and “treat the violence and trauma that lie at the root of victimized girls’ arrests,” said the report written by Saada Saar, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal and Yasmin Vafa.

“Girls who have been trafficked get arrested rather than the pimps … They’re treated as criminals rather than victims,” Edelman said.

When girls run away or are truant, they are treated as status offenders.

hub_arrow_2-01“What happens very often is that she runs away [again] and violates her probation as a status offender … Now she’s transformed into a juvenile delinquent — and that needs to be changed,” Edelman said.

The punitive environment of juvenile detention can retrigger trauma, the report says.

“There needs to be significant mental health services in the juvenile corrections system but there just isn’t,” Edelman said.

The sex-abuse-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects girls of color, the report said.

African-American girls make up 14 percent of the general population, but 33 percent of the juvenile justice population, it said.

Efforts to reform the juvenile justice system are not adequately taking note of girls’ experience and the distinct pipeline that funnels them into the system, the report says.

“When we say ‘black lives matter,’ that means girls too,” Saada Saar said. The debate over criminalizing boys of color must also address the criminalization of girls.

The report calls for a number of actions:

  • Increase mental health and trauma services for girls; the report details how that can be done through Medicaid.
  • Improve identification of victims of abuse.
  • End arrests of girls under 18 on prostitution charges.
  • Close the loophole in the law, the Valid Court Order Loophole, that allows girls to be locked up for status offenses, such as truancy or running away.
  • Provide law enforcement training on gender bias.
  • Create supportive and safe group homes for girls.

L.A. School Police, District Agree to Rethink Court Citations of Students

This story originally appeared on by the Center for Public Integrity.

In the wake of critical news reports, Los Angeles school police and administrators have agreed to rethink enforcement tactics that have led to thousands of court citations yearly for young students in low-income, mostly minority neighborhoods.

The Center for Public Integrity and the Los Angeles-based Labor-Community Strategy Center each performed their own analysis recently of previously unreleased citation records obtained from the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department, the nation’s largest school police force. The Center found that between 2009 and the end of 2011, Los Angeles school police officers issued more than 33,500 tickets to students 18 and younger, with more than 40 percent handed out to kids 14 and 10 years old. That was an average of about 30 tickets a day. A large portion of the tickets for younger children were for disturbing the peace, which can include a physical fight or using threatening or disruptive language.

Some parents and concerned juvenile-justice judges have questioned whether it’s appropriate for such minor indiscretions to be handled by police, rather than school authorities.

Arguing that heavy police ticketing of children is counterproductive, Manuel Criollo of the Labor Community Strategy Center said his group has met twice with L.A. Unified School Police Chief Steven Zipperman and Michelle King, a deputy district superintendent. A third meeting is expected to take place this month.

Criollo said Zipperman was surprised at revelations that children as young as 7 and 8 have been given court summonses, many of which include monetary penalties. Police and administrators agreed to discuss alternatives to ticketing for tardiness, disturbing the peace and “possession” offenses, which can include possession of cigarettes, lighters or magic markers that could be used for graffiti, Criollo said.

A spokesperson for L.A. Unified said in a statement that “LASPD is committed to reviewing the data and analyzing incident types in which alternative strategies can be feasibly developed, especially in areas such as truancy.”

During the week of June 18, the spokesperson also said, Los Angeles school police, “collaborating with other district offices and divisions, will begin to develop a timeline for working on identifying alternative strategies . . . Considering we are the largest school district in the state and second largest in the country, developing this timeline will take time and diligence. “

The Center’s analysis also showed that citations to middle-school students were highly concentrated in Los Angeles’ most heavily Latino and African-American neighborhoods. Los Angeles public radio station KPCC created a mapand also produced a report on the citations in collaboration with the Center.

In response to revelations about the volume of citations, district officials and police had previously maintained that court appearances would help students learn that fighting and other unlawful behavior would not be tolerated as adults.

“I’m not hearing them saying that now,” Criollo said.

A growing number of educational experts contend that introducing students to the criminal-justice system for low-level offenses actually pushes many away from school and increases the possibility of their dropping out. The areas where student ticketing is heaviest corresponds to neighborhoods where Los Angeles’ dropout rates have been highest. Criollo and others who want reforms suggested that a heavier police presence in lower-income neighborhoods leads to unequal police involvement in school life.

After an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the Los Angeles district agreed last year to take steps to reduce the district’s relatively high suspension rates of African-American students. As part of its review of Los Angeles’ ongoing reforms in discipline policy, the civil rights office is also reviewing the district’s history of court citations.

Criollo said it’s hard to tell from records released so far how many tickets originate with school administrators deciding to involve police in a school matter and how many are the result of officers’ own decisions to issue citations.

Photo by Office of the Mayor of Los Angeles

UPDATE: Contempt Charges Dropped Against Texas Honor Student Diane Tran

Honor student Diane Tran, 17, was arrested and sentenced to 24 hours in jail and $100 dollar fine. Photo: CNN
Honor student Diane Tran, 17, was arrested and sentenced to 24 hours in jail and $100 dollar fine by a Texs judge. Photo: CNN

UPDATE, MAY 31: Following an intense public backlash, Texas Judge Lanny Moriarty dismissed contempt charges Wednesday against Diane Tran - a 17-year-old high school student punished last week for truancy.

Tran, an 11th grade student at the Houston-area Willis High School, spent 24 hours in a Montgomery County jail last week and was ordered to pay a $100 fine for excessive truancy, Houston’s KHOU-11 reports. Under Texas law, students are allowed to miss no more than 10 class days during a six-month window; reportedly, Tran had missed 18 days for that school year.

Following her parents’ separation, Tran has been financially supporting her siblings, working full time at a dry cleaning operation and performing part-time work as a wedding planner. Considered a legal adult under state law, Tran was warned about her absences - considered a misdemeanor offense within the state - by a judge in April.

Shortly after the news broke, Tran’s case became an Internet phenomenon, with numerous sites and organizations starting fundraisers and circulating petitions in support of the 17-year-old, according to the Huffington Post. One petition, on the site, has amassed more than 250,000 signatures. The site, a project started by the Louisiana Children’s Education Alliance, raised more than $100,000 in little under a week for a trust account in Tran’s name.

By signing the order, Judge Moriarity drops all contempt charges against Tran, who now can have her record expunged following the completion of proper paperwork.

May 26: A 17-year-old honor student was sentenced to 24-hours in jail and a $100 fine by a Montgomery County, Texas judge for missing too many classes, CBS Atlanta reports.

Judge Lanny Moriarty told CBS Atlanta he wanted to make an example of Diane Tran, saying "If you let one run loose, what are you gonna' do with the rest of 'em?"

Tran works two jobs in addition to taking advanced-level classes in an effort support herself and her younger sister after her parents split and left the teens to, basically, fend for themselves, she told CBS.

The full report and video interview are available on


No Easy Answers When it Comes to Truant Youth

I attended the recent annual conference of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) to give the closing plenary about judicial leadership off the bench.

Immediately before my closing I attended a workshop on truancy led by Judge Joan Byer of Louisville, Ky., and Dr. Shawn Marsh of the NCJFCJ. They offered some great ideas and further empowered me for my closing keynote speech on the importance of working together in the community to help our kids avoid the trauma of detention -- and it is traumatic despite what we may tell ourselves.

Judge Byer asked how many in the audience are from jurisdictions that allow the detention of truant (status) youth. Most raised their hands.

Then she asked how many use detention in truancy cases. Only two raised their hands.

I was please to see that despite the overwhelming number of jurisdictions that permit detention of truants, most judges exercise self-restraint.

The empowerment I derived from this workshop lies not only in this fact as well as the content and delivery, but knowing that the NCJFCJ is exercising judicial leadership off the bench to publish best practices -- even if it may invite controversy!

Let’s face it -- we know that truancy is linked to later delinquency. A 20-year longitudinal study found that truant youth are eight times more likely to become delinquent than non-truant youth (Henry & Huizinga, 2005).  Truancy is a serious issue and cannot be treated lightly -- it is a precursor to delinquency. Treating truancy is about preventing delinquency.

The rub is in the "how?" -- and detention is not the answer.

Those who believe that detention is effective obviously believe so on anecdotal evidence. It's surely not grounded in competent evidence -- that is, the kind of evidence judges are suppose to consider when making findings of fact in their courtroom. Why do some of us (judges) do so well in the courtroom drawing conclusions, but are horrible outside our domain of laws and decorum?

Do we perform better in the courtroom because we are trained to apply rules of evidence to sort out the truth when judging a case? We (judges) qualify experts and often rely on their expert opinions when grounded in sound scientific principles. So, how can a judge be so quick to dismiss research grounded in hard data and analyzed using social scientific principles as in the use of detention and status youth?

Maybe some don't know the research; or, that some lack the resources to treat and use detention as a default; or, that others simply find it more convenient to detain than to treat; or, could it be that some simply don't care? Maybe it’s a combination of all -- though I am convinced the latter group is the smallest minority. Most judges I have come to know in my 13 years on the bench truly care. It’s typically never a question of motive, but one of method.

So, what about methodology?

Detention facilities are intended to provide temporary holding for youth pending a hearing on a delinquent act and are deemed high risk of serious re-offending or not appearing in court. It is an interesting paradox how on one hand detention is designed for youth at high risk for serious re-offending on a delinquent act but on the other some judges use it for truants as a preventive means against delinquency.

Let’s see if this makes sense. Truant kids are not delinquent -- they have committed no crime. Truant kids are high risk to become delinquent. These facts are undeniable – even for those judges who believe in the use of detention. So how does locking up non-delinquent kids with serious high risk delinquent kids become preventative, especially if truant kids are already high risk to become delinquent? As some would say -- "This is not rocket science!"

Nonetheless, this is what the research says:

Besides the fact that detention facilities are not exactly the best housing in America -- many are understaffed (Holman and Ziedenberg, 2007), "crowded and unsafe" (National Juvenile Defender Center, 2006:4), and the risk is great that status youth will develop more deviant attitudes and behaviors through exposure to other status offenders and to delinquent youth (Holman and Ziedenberg, 2007) -- Judge Byer offered a distressing observation in her presentation: Detention also violates the needs of status offenders!

Judge Byer stated that her court collects data on truant youth that come through her court and at least 60 percent have suffered trauma at the hands of neglect, abuse, or both -- and the research supports her data. Consider a study that reported the following:

"[y]outh who enter juvenile status offense systems are often in extreme conflict with their parents that cannot be resolved privately without some intervention. These are youth who often fall between the ‘cracks’ of two bureaucratic legal systems -- one designed to respond to maltreatment of young children and the other focused on youthful offenders who present a risk to society. They need protective interventions, and their families require non-coercive, family-focused approaches that may help deter future delinquency. Many have been abused or neglected; are dealing with domestic violence within their families; come from poor and violent neighborhoods; suffer from serious unmet mental health needs, learning disabilities, and emotional or behavioral problems; and lack adequate educational and career opportunities. These are teens and families at risk and in great need of assistance." (Kendall, 2007).

The bottom line -- why keep beating them up by throwing them in jail? Would we do that to a child in a dependency case? Would we do it to our own child? Assuming there are no resources, why use a default that hurts more than it helps?

I am thankful there are more who follow the research than not and, in time, with the leadership and fortitude of the NCJFCJ, there will be even more.

Los Angeles to Vote Feb. 22 on Ending $250 Truancy Fines

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity

In a policy debate watched nationally, the city of Los Angeles came closer Monday to getting rid of most — but not all — controversial monetary fines for students who are tardy or truant from school.

For several years, students in Los Angeles have complained about hefty $250-plus fines for being tardy, and about police officers who staked out schools to catch students sometimes only minutes late. The ticketing also requires students to go to court, with parents, during school hours, so they miss more class time and parents miss work.

On Monday, the Los Angeles City Council’s Public Safety Committee voted to set limits on how police enforce the city’s 1995 daytime curfew law and to stop imposing the $250 fines, which, once fees and court costs are added on, can rise to $400 or more for one violation.

The curfew amendments — if they get full city council approval on Feb. 22 — would replace the $250 fines with graduated penalties emphasizing counseling. Students ticketed once or twice would be required to participate in an attendance-improvement plan or in counseling or community service. If ticketed a third time, the ordinance would call for a possible monetary fine whose amount is still being negotiated, said Michael de la Rocha, legislative deputy to Los Angeles City Council member Tony Cardenas, who sponsored the amendments.

Cardenas wanted to end all fines, and would prefer capping a third-strike fine at $20, which in reality would end up costing students more, given extra fees that get tacked on, de la Rocha said.

As of January, Los Angeles' students won't be required to pay monetary fines — for now — regardless of what the city council does. Last month, Michael Nash, the county’s presiding juvenile court judge, instructed all court officers to stop imposing daytime curfew fines on ticketed students throughout the county and instead order them to show improved attendance, or, if that fails, mandatory counseling or community service.

Nash recently told the Center for Public Integrity he didn’t think the fines were effective because many students didn’t pay them — they were afraid to tell their parents — and as a result were accumulating penalties of thousands of dollars and not being allowed to get driver’s licenses.  From now on, the court’s ultimate penalty, Nash said, will be blocking or suspending a driver’s license but not collecting money.

Cardenas said his proposal to end fines would have brought the city's ordinance into line with Nash's thinking.De la Rocha also noted that once Nash steps down as presiding judge, his successor could decide to restore imposing daytime curfew fines in Los Angeles and in other jurisdictions inside the county.

The Los Angeles Police Department’s position on Cardenas' amendments was that the city's ordinance should still include a monetary fine,  “a heavy stick,” de la Rocha said, and it should be up to a judge’s discretion whether to impose that or not.

Nash was chairman of a task force on school attendance that released a report this month attacking daytime curfew fines as falling disproportionately on low-income families and students who depend on unreliable public transit or have other reasons for arriving tardy, such as caring for younger siblings. The report called for other measures to try to boost school attendance, including counseling to get to root problems for tardiness or disengagement from school.

Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Los Angeles-based Labor Community Strategy Center, said his group wanted to end fines, but accepted that Cardenas had to “reach out” to police to get backing for amendments. Criollo served on the attendance task force with Nash.

On Monday, the public safety committee also adopted additional Cardenas amendments. They include forbidding police from ticketing students in areas immediately around schools, and for officers to avoid stopping students, especially during the first hour of school, who are clearly on their way to classes.  Officers also have to show they tried to talk to students to determine if they were truly truant.

Criollo’s group lobbied for these restrictions because of students being stopped, handcuffed and, in some cases, treated in an allegedly rough manner by officers, as the Center for Public Integrity reported recently.

Last year, both the chiefs of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles School District Police issued directives for officers to follow these guidelines and stick to the “spirit” of the daytime curfew law. But some students still complained of how police behaved toward them.

Criollo said his group hopes to work with Nash to see if Los Angeles students who are ticketed can avoid having to take time off school for mandatory court appearances and instead enter into out-of-court counseling agreements with school and city supervision.

Nash’s directive and the amendments before the Los Angeles City Council have attracted support from civil-rights groups nationwide concerned that daytime curfews and large fines are actually pushing students away from school.  Some students in Los Angeles said they opted not to go to school at all if they felt they might arrive late.

Los Angeles “is a trend setter for the rest of the country — to show that there are other ways to get youth engaged in school,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group concerned with education policies.

Click here for further coverage of this story.

Los Angeles Moves Haltingly Toward Ending Truancy Fines

This story was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity


A student from San Pedro High School in the Los Angeles area is detained for truancy in 2010 by Los Angeles city officers. Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze

Juvenile judge tries to alter failed policy with "rationality."

LOS ANGELES — Fifteen-year-old Juan Carlos Amezcua was just five minutes late for school, and already at the corner by Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles when a police cruiser’s siren went off last Nov. 16.

The consequences of what happened next — handcuffing, allegations of rough treatment and a $250 daytime curfew ticket — are still resonating here. In January, Amezcua and his cousin, who was also stopped by police en route to school, saw their tickets dismissed in juvenile court. Still upset at their encounter with police, though, the pair and their parents filed a complaint on Feb. 3 with the school district and police concerning officers’ behavior.

Meanwhile, the presiding judge of Los Angeles’ juvenile court and Los Angeles city leaders are also moving to curtail law-enforcement involvement in policing student attendance.

The dispute is indicative of a broader, complex and, at times, racially charged debate over how best to deal with tardy or truant students in jurisdictions across the country. Since the 1990s, cities large and small have adopted daytime curfews with monetary fines to force kids to get to school. Now the City of Angels is at ground zero as the impact of such ordinances in reconsidered.

Next Monday, the Los Angeles City Council’s Public Safety Committee starts a review of proposed amendments to that city’s nine-year-old daytime curfew law. Among the proposals: setting limits on enforcement by police, who routinely search youths and sometimes handcuff them. The proposed amendments would also effectively end $250 fines in favor of negotiated agreements that tardy students submit to counseling.

Troubling history

Aggressive enforcement of the daytime curfew that began here in 1995 has more recently strained students’ relations with police, and ignited protests. Early-morning police “sweeps” that netted kids as they approached schools, especially, inspired a movement among students, parents and civil-liberties groups to protest students being handcuffed — and fingerprinted, in some cases — and then forced to miss more school to go to juvenile court to deal with tickets.

Students at schools with some of the highest dropout rates have reported staying home if they were running late — rather than risk meeting up with police and getting tickets that can rise to $400 once court fees are tacked on.

Being stopped by a police officer “leaves a deep mark and a certain perspective about the culture we live in. It is being treated as a potential offender,” said Zoe Rawson, a lawyer who represents ticketed students in Los Angeles who, data show, have been mostly Latino and black and from low-income areas. “For someone who is disengaged from school, it pushes them away even more.”

That message seemed to be getting through when, last April, and then in October, the chiefs of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s police issued respective guidelines that officers consider “the spirit” of curfew laws and avoid targeting students who were clearly on their way to school.

Sgt. Ken Kimbrough, spokesman for the Los Angeles School Police, said the intent of the sweeps was not to issue fines, but to help kids — some embroiled in dangerous activity — stay in school and direct them to appropriate counseling and family services. “Could there have been some overzealous officers out there? Sure,” he said. “But that’s why the chief put out new guidelines.”

But what youngsters like Juan Carlos Amezcua experienced in November gave rise to questions about whether the new guidelines were working.

Los Angeles Police Department officers detain students accused of truancy during a 2010 sweep in the San Pedro area. Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze

Amezcua and his cousin, also 15, were emerging from a market near their school in Los Angeles’ tough Boyle Heights neighborhood when officers stopped the teens, handcuffed and searched them. When Amezcua said the two were going to school and added, “You can’t do this,” an officer used profanity and told him to “shut … up or else I’ll slap you in the face,” according to the complaint filed Feb. 3.

One of officers took Amezcua’s baseball cap off and once he was in the car threw it in his face, the complaint alleges. And instead of driving directly into the closest school lot, the complaint says, the officers circled the campus and sped up at each turn, causing the handcuffed students, who were not wearing seatbelts, to slide against the car doors and for one of them to strike his head against the car window.

The students were taken into Roosevelt High School and remained in handcuffs while officers wrote them tickets for being truant at 8 a.m., Amezcua said. By the time they were released, he said, only 10 minutes were left of his second period class.

“They were laughing because I told them I was going to get a lawyer,” Amezcua told the Center for Public Integrity.

Kimbrough said he couldn’t discuss the complaint because it is confidential and under investigation. Police procedure, for the safety of officers, he said, is to handcuff suspected truants if they are transported in a police vehicle. Keeping them cuffed after they are taken into a school is also “pretty common practice” while officers are still investigating circumstances, he said.

A judicial order

Crusaders for curfew reform thought they had reason to celebrate in January, when Los Angeles County Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash issued a sweeping directive for court officers to stop imposing monetary truancy fines on any student ticketed in Los Angeles County Nash’s court is one of the biggest juvenile courts in the United States.

Nash’s directive also means that students with previous unpaid fines can perform community service instead.

“I’m not interested in collecting money,” Nash told the Center for Public Integrity. Fines, he said, have proved “onerous. At the end of the day, it’s not an effective system.”

Instead, Nash’s guidelines call for dismissing tickets for students who were clearly headed to school, albeit late, and giving minors who were truly truant a series of opportunities to prove they are attending school, or submitting to counseling or other services. If they don’t follow up, they will be assigned community service and could have driver’s licenses revoked or not granted, which is currently the juvenile court’s ultimate penalty if fines are not paid.

“Hopefully,” Nash said, “we’ve just added a little bit of rationality to the system.”

Until Nash’s order, it was up to a court officer, or “referee,” to decide whether to impose fines, “probation” or community service in lieu of a fine.

Many students’ tickets automatically accumulated into hundreds, even thousands of dollars in fines, Nash said, because the youths never showed up at court. He said many ticketed students were afraid to tell parents, who are required to accompany their children to court and have to take time off work.

Nash said that students who did pay fines last year, however, contributed a large share — he doesn’t know the exact amount — of nearly $7 million in penalties collected by the court’s traffic section, which handles curfew violations.

A ‘blunt tool’

The broad reassessment of policies has continued here. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force — which Nash chairs — released a report criticizing daytime curfew citations as a “blunt tool” that can lead to “unnecessary criminalization” of students. “Involving youth in the criminal justice system has the detrimental and unintended consequences of reducing their chances of graduating high school,” the report says.

The report cited 2006 research by a criminologist who analyzed national data and found that a first-time arrest or court appearance increases students’odds of dropping out by at least a factor of three. The negative impact was most pronounced among youths who were not previously in trouble.

The task force included representatives of the Los Angeles city and school police, school districts and civil liberties and community groups.

When Los Angeles adopted the daytime curfew, it was embraced as a tool to fight juvenile crime — police still say it still serves that purpose — and as a way to ultimately boost graduation rates. Keeping students engaged in school continues to be a problem, though. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s high school graduation rate is considered one of the worst in California, with the district’s own calculation at 56 percent and the state’s at 64 percent.

If the proposed amendments to Los Angeles’ ordinance go through, they would not only end the $250 fines, they would allow students to avoid having to make an appearance in Nash’s court if they agree to counseling prior to the court date. The city has developed a dozen facilities called WorkSource Youth Centers to help provide services as part of this alternative plan, supporters say. A Federal Workforce Investment grant of at least $10 million, awarded last September, will help pay for more staff to specifically address truancy.

The amendments would also establish a “rebuttable presumption” that students are traveling to school if they are within a three-block radius during the first 60 minutes of school. Officers would be barred from enforcing the curfew at entrances to school or nearby, and would have to show that they talked to minors and write down on tickets reasons officers were convinced a youth was truly truant.

“They would have to use some discretion instead of just saying, ‘You know what, kid? Tough cookies,’ ” said Tony Cardenas, the councilman who introduced the proposals. Bernard Parks, a council member who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, also backs the proposed changes.

“Truancy rates are directly correlated to low graduation rates,” Cardenas added. “But kids should be dealing with a counselor trained to talk to a young mind.”

Cardenas will separately pursue a requirement for city police to publish statistics on ethnicity and other information about the students those officers cite.

Easy target?

In 2010, the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union and a local group, the Labor Community Strategy Center, disclosed city and school police data showing that 88 percent of more than 47,000 daytime curfew tickets issued in Los Angeles between 2004 and 2009 went to Latino or black students. Together, these students are 77 percent of the student population.

The center created maps showing that ticketing was concentrated around lower-income Latino and black neighborhood schools. The data also indicated that not one of the more than 13,000 students ticketed during those years by the Los Angeles School Police was identified as white, although whites are 13 percent of that district’s population.

Students who arrive late but in cars with parents driving have escaped ticketing because they are with their parents and not in violation of the daytime curfew.

Maceo Bradley was 15 when he arrived late to Locke High School in December 2010 on foot. He was delayed, he said, because he got caught up looking for some school fundraising material he felt pressured to hand in that day. He reported to the office when he arrived more than half an hour late, and when an attendant told him to go on to class an officer ordered him to stop and wrote him a ticket.

“I had never had an interaction with police, at least not negative, until then,” said Bradley, who is black. He missed much of two days of school to go to court once, and then again 60 days later. His mother also had to miss work both days. He later stayed home one day, he said, when he feared he would be late again.

Gabriel Saldana, Bradley’s schoolmate, said he arrived an hour late one day, also in December 2010, because the first bus he catches was late and he missed a connecting bus. As he walked up to school, an officer told him to stop and wrote him a ticket. “He asked me for my thumbprint,” Saldana said. “I was shocked. But what am I going to do? Say no and end up in handcuffs?’

Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Labor Community Strategy Center, praised Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck and Los Angeles School Police Chief Steven Zipperman for their willingness to listen to complaints and issue new guidelines.

But in light of the way Amezcua and his cousin were allegedly treated — after Zipperman’s directive — Criollo co-signed the complaint this month against officers. The complaint accuses the officers of violating the chief’s new policy as well as alleged “unreasonable and excessive” search, seizure and physical restraint.

On Jan. 13, when Amezcua and his cousin appeared in court, as required, their tickets were dismissed because the court officer found that they were headed to school. The boys were obviously pleased. But they did have to miss school to go to court.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit group focused on investigative journalism

Kids Skipping School and the Wrong Way to Fix It

John Last 1The first time I skipped school I was 13 years old. Up until then I had achieved perfect attendance for eight years. But in ninth grade I put an ignominious end to my record.

That year, I had a friend, Jack, who lived down the street. His parents both went to work early, and he was left to his own devices to get to school. His family owned a late ‘60s Thunderbird, and one day he got the idea that these mornings before school would be an ideal time to practice his driving. We drove around town, mostly on dirt roads and in fields, but sometimes on busy streets as well. This went fine for awhile, until one day the car ran out of gas. This was a problem, since we were unable to get back home in time to make our regular ride to school. It made sense that since we were already in trouble we might as well make the best of it, so we spent the day going to the arcade and watching television.

Up until then I had never considered playing hooky, but after my adventure with Jack I increasingly began to take advantage of the joys of truancy. Once I realized I could simply walk away from school, or better yet not show up at all, a new world opened up for me.

I remembered my time with Jack when I was recently reading about attempts to curb truancy in Kentucky.

The Covington, Ky., city council voted unanimously in December of last year to put more power into the hands of police officers when they encountered kids skipping school. The ordinance took effect on Jan. 2, 2012. It gives officers some extra powers to charge kids with a misdemeanor if they are caught away from school during school hours. It also makes the parents subject to charges if they are complicit in the crime. The Director of Pupil Personnel for the district told a local reporter that this was a good way to get the families of problem kids in front of a judge.

Assistant Chief of Covington Police, Lt. Col. Michael 'Spike' Jones told WPOC Channel 9, "The way the state statute is set up now, there's a whole lot that goes into actually charging a child with truancy on the onset initially that we have to go through. This eliminates some of those steps, it prevents our police officers from having to be babysitters, so to speak, and it gives us a safe place to take these kids and get them returned back into the environment where they can learn."

Similar measures are being adopted around the country. In Belen, N.M., where some 10 percent of the districts kids have attendance problems, the courts will become involved if the student misses 10 classes. Parents face fines and even jail time if the truancy problems do not improve.

I am not so sure that making it easier to charge kids, and their parents, with a crime is the best way to go. The real incentive here is not the wellbeing of these kids, some 90 percent of whom live beneath the poverty line, but funding for the school district that is tied to attendance. Last year the Covington, Ky., school district, which oversees 4,000 students, had 13,500 unexcused absences. This cost the district $500,000 in funding tied to the No Child Left Behind Law.

In the current economic crisis it is understandable that schools want to do whatever they can to maintain funding levels. And I am making no case that truancy is not, sometimes, a serious problem. My own opposition to these types of laws comes from a sense that they are focused on the wrong area. In many cases of truancy, and its side effects of poor school performance and increased involvement in crime, the truancy is only a warning of some deeper problem. This was true in my own life, and it is true in the lives of many kids today.

Problems such as poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, bullying, and neglect, all contribute to kids missing school. Behavioral issues often underlie truancy as well, and are better addressed by counseling than by sending kids and their parents in front of a judge or, God forbid, to jail.

While I understand the good motives behind laws like these, I cannot agree with their premise that these measures will do something to improve the underlying situations that cause kids to miss school. These are better dealt with in other ways. We cannot make a crime out of everything we dislike and hope that it will then magically go away. That is simplistic and unlikely to work. Similar measures have been tried around the country and have usually been abandoned after a few years. Let’s instead look for creative solutions that acknowledge the real societal issues for which truancy is often only an indicator.

Grant Hopes to Cut the Number of Kids Who Cut Class

The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention offers the National Training and Technical Assistance Center for Truancy Prevention and Intervention program. This program provides development, training and resources that focus on kids who cut class and other issues. The focus is to try to prevent kids from dropping out of school. The deadline for this is July 11, 2011 at 11:59 P.M. E.S.T.





Jail for Parents who Skip Meetings?

Parents who fail to attend at least one student teacher conference a year could wind up in jail for up to 3 days if a Detroit prosecutor gets her way.  The idea behind this proposal is to make parents accountable for their child’s education, and keep kids in school and out of trouble.  The idea is meeting strong opposition. One local politician recommends spending the money to teach parenting skills instead. A parent points out that if parents are in jail, their children may get into trouble at home alone.   The debate on this issue is so hot, 100 people have posted their comments at the Detroit Free Press website.