L.A. Activists Push for Overhaul of Harsh Discipline Policies

While teacher evaluations and union negotiations get the headlines, education activists claimed several victories this year in their effort to shut down what they call the "schools to prison pipeline."

Earlier this year the Los Angeles Police Department said it would no longer engage in truancy sweeps around a handful of L.A. Unified high schools. Last month the school district's police force, the L.A. Schools Police Department, took the same action. This year and last, officers of the two agencies mobilized in early morning sweeps to catch truant students. Officers were enforcing the law; during school hours minors have to be in class. Students and their advocates complained that the sweeps took place, not at the mall, the beach, or other teen hangouts, but near and around schools, just as the school bell rang, as students were heading to class. Officers handcuffed and frisked some students. The sweeps took place near campuses in working class immigrant neighborhoods, such as Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights. Students had to take time off from school to go to court and many were fined for the infraction.

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This is no way to motivate students to go to school, activists said.

A coalition formed a few years ago to push L.A. Unified's policy-making body, the board of education, to start changing the truancy policies and to overhaul increasingly harsh discipline in the district. There's a consensus among education researchers that the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 sped up a move toward zero tolerance policies and a mood on campus in which administrators hand out student suspensions for behavior that would have earned a student time after school just a few generations ago. Activists say weapons, drugs, and violence violations should be punished.

The coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, the Youth Justice Coalition, and Public Counsel, among others.

The groups gathered at the California Endowment's new facilities across from Phillipe's in downtown L.A. recently to connect by teleconference with groups in other California cities pushing their school districts to make similar changes.

20-year-old Claudia Gomez was there. She talked about her dream in middle school of becoming a doctor and about how the shooting death of her older sister in their South L.A. neighborhood began to derail her career plans. She wishes a teacher, counselor, any adult would have stepped in to help her when she started getting into fights and skipped school.

"I admitted that I had anger management problems because all of a sudden I would turn into some violent person when something would trigger me. I never got anger management classes. I would just be sent home if I was crying."

In spite of suspensions, an expulsion, and thousands of dollars in truancy tickets Gomez earned her high school diploma through independent study and now counsels students who find themselves in the same emotional hardships she suffered four years ago.

About a hundred students, parents, and activists spilled out of a large conference room during the statewide teleconference. Afterward, several of the students shared their writing to the circle of people. Westchester High School eleventh grader Tegegne Alemseged read the group a poem about the mood at his school.

If you were in my shoes
How would you feel
Waking up every day
And the first thing you see is people underestimating you
Thinking that there is no way you can succeed
If you were in my shoes
Would you come to school knowing teachers
Don't care whether you learn or not


L.A. Unified adopted an overhaul to its discipline policies in 2007. It's called Positive Behavior Supports. The problem, activists say and the district admits is that schools have been slow to implement it. It takes time, Edison Middle School Principal Pedro Garcia told me during a recent visit. Parents, teachers, and administrators are on board he said, to define behavior expectations and support and encourage the students who follow the rules instead of focusing all the time on the students who break the rules. The campus is more than 80 years old and stretches three city blocks from end to end in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood. A box for student and teacher recognition gets frequent nominations. Glass cases hold pictures of the student and staffer of the month. The banners and flyers on the walls are limited to messages encouraging respect and tolerance.

That was the message last week at a symposium in Hawthorne attended by 300 teachers and administrators from L.A. Unified's south L.A. area.

A court judge urged attendees to communicate with the court about discipline policies, a scholar talked about the pushout factor behind harsh discipline policies, and parent activists urged teachers to inquire about the hardships at home. Brandi North, a teacher at Fremont High School helped draft her school's written pledge to rethink behavior policies. She and the other representatives of the school committed the campus to training teachers on role modeling for students, and to make clear to teachers and students what behavior is expected at school, rather than list what students should not do. North says she started her teaching career in the nurturing environment of elementary schools and feels teens need more of that caring to carry them through their academic and emotional challenges.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

About the Author

Adolfo’s been a reporter at NPR affiliate KPCC since 2000. He’s reported on three L.A. mayors, four L.A. Unified superintendents, and covered the LAPD batons and rubber bullets flying at the May, 2007 MacArthur Park immigrant marc...
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