The Los Angeles Unified School District this week took a welcome step away from a longstanding disciplinary system in which police issued citations to students ages 13 to 17 who committed minor offenses, a system that effectively criminalizes what is often merely coming-of-age behavior while emphasizing punishment over education. The change in the nation's second-largest school district reflects a growing recognition that low-level behavioral lapses by teenagers should not lead to criminal charges and shouldn't affect their access to learning or their ability to graduate.
The district has been moving in this direction for some time. Two years ago it stopped issuing citations for truancy, instead referring students to youth centers for counseling and other support. Last year, it barred suspensions for "willful defiance" (what teen isn't willfully defiant from time to time?) after studies determined such suspensions were meted out disproportionately to minority students, and that the practice imperiled academic achievement.
Under the district's new policy, students involved in non-serious altercations or accused of petty thefts, minor vandalism or other such missteps will be referred to counseling and administrative discipline rather than being sent to juvenile court. To handle the disciplinary actions, the district already has added a restorative justice adviser for each of the five Education Service Centers, and 25 restorative justice teacher advisers. Still, district officials should make sure that the staffing meets the new demands.
The district will continue to involve police in serious infractions of discipline. Citations still will be issued to students involved in fights that result in someone requiring emergency medical treatment, or that police have to use force to break up. Students with a history of disturbances or who have failed to complete counseling after a previous referral for the same offense, or who a victim demands be arrested, will still be issued citations, as will students caught with weapons. Minor marijuana possession will involve police to handle seized contraband, but no citation will be issued.
These are sane and clear-sighted changes, a move away from the kind of zero-tolerance policies that many school districts adopted in recent years. Los Angeles school officials are right to recognize that while they need to keep schools safe, their priority should be educating students both in the classroom and in life.