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ACLU report is critical of campus policing

LOS ANGELES — A report critical of how many California school districts use school police officers to discipline students when it comes to dealing with problems ranging from truancy to graffiti, has been released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The report analyzed law enforcement policies of 119 California school districts, including 50 of its most populous. It found that more than half of the districts gave their staff broad discretion in calling upon police officers, which means law enforcement now handles many issues that traditionally fell under the jurisdiction of teachers, counselors and administrators.

Since tardiness and vandalism are technically crimes, according to Victor Leung, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, officers are then given the authority to arrest students or write them a citation.

“If you go to court, you’re four times less likely to graduate,” Leung said. “Having to go to trial takes a toll on students and takes them away from school. It’s also very hard on families.”

Students of color are more likely to be arrested for minor infractions than their white counterparts, the report found. And the arrest rate in schools where more than 80 percent of students are low-income is seven times the arrest rate of schools where 20 percent of students are low-income.

“In Beverly Hills, we don’t see students getting a citation for being late. They just get detention,” Leung said.

Police presence in schools contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, and the use of restorative justice counselors is a more effective solution, Leung said.

Restorative justice focuses on community involvement and building trust between school staff and students. Leung said the ACLU has found that safety increases and crime decreases in districts with these programs.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the report found police officers are required to have a warrant or court order before removing a student for questioning. But it also showed the district requires school staff to screen middle and high school students randomly and daily with a metal detector wand.

Sgt. Julie Spry of the Los Angeles School Police Department would not comment on the report.

The Downey Unified School District employs police officers but “most definitely does not” use them for student discipline, according to Marian Reynolds, administrator of student affairs.

“We have them around more for security reasons and to show students that police aren’t the bad guy. They’ve done presentations in classrooms,” she said.

Though officers leave the discipline to the Downey school administrators, they have intervened to let students know the consequences of their actions once they enter the adult world. Reynolds said those cases are mostly related to buying and selling drugs, but that none of those incidents has occurred this year.

“Students are more afraid of me than they are of the officers,” she said.

Even so, Leung said the ACLU would like to see any permanent police presence removed from schools.

The report recommends adopting policies that would require calls to law enforcement only if there is a real and immediate threat to students, staff or public safety.

“Columbine was the turning point for school districts allowing police officers on campuses,” Leung said. “The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary also contributed. This a fear-based issue that’s led to a culture of zero-tolerance.”

Another improvement measure laid out in the report is to require officers to have arrest warrants before taking students into custody if they are suspected of a crime on or off campus. They should also allow students access to adult supervision.

And finally, districts should reinvest the money spent on school resource officers, security guards and police officers into counselors and other measures to promote restorative justice.