As more school districts in Los Angeles County begin expelling students who bring weapons to class, there is growing concern that youths as young as 13 are spending their days on the street because room has run out at schools for juvenile delinquents.
“Hundreds of kids are falling through the cracks because we don’t have the programs to serve them,” said Phil Kauble, an attendance consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “We get calls every week from parents who say, ‘Hey, what do I do. My kid needs to go to school, but there’s nowhere for him to go.’ ”
Los Angeles County already runs 14 small, storefront schools that can accommodate 476 problem students. But they are full, and Kauble says programs should be at least doubled to meet the needs of students who remain at risk.
Countywide, 1,850 students were expelled last year and that number is expected to rise this year as districts implement tougher expulsion policies. Los Angeles Unified alone says expulsions will increase from 16 last year to as many as 250 students this year because of a new policy of automatically expelling students who bring weapons to class or assault others. Jackie Goldberg, president of the school board, says most of those expelled will be students under 16 who are not yet old enough to find jobs.
“They end up alone, hanging out and getting into more trouble,” says Goldberg, adding that the district needs to open a half-dozen new schools for delinquents in the next few years to keep them off the streets. “How would you like having 250 kids who have been expelled for weapons possession not having anything to do all day in your city?” she asked.
Until several years ago, the state educational code required school districts to refer expelled students to an alternative school. While that requirement has been dropped, some Los Angeles area educators maintain that schools still have a responsibility to help expelled students get an education somewhere. They say ignoring the problems of such students only paves the way for more delinquency and crime.
Those concerns were underscored this fall, when a report released by the county Office of Education found that 45% of students expelled last year were subsequently arrested. The report raised concerns that turning problem students onto the street creates “an illusion of school safety” while actually shifting the danger from the campus to the community.
As the need for educational alternatives grows, districts from Alhambra to Whittier have petitioned Los Angeles County to open new schools in their areas. A pilot program for 30 students already is under way in the El Monte area for expelled students who are not hard-core delinquents. And Los Angeles Unified is evaluating 15 locations, including a now-closed junior high school in Woodland Hills, as possible sites for new county-run schools known as community day centers. The county has said it will operate the programs if the school districts provide the physical sites.
The schools were started in the mid-1980s to educate chronic truants, former dropouts, incorrigibles, runaways, teen-agers on probation from Juvenile Court and homeless students, whose numbers are increasing every year, according to David Flores, who runs the county’s Community Day Center program. The county started accepting expelled students from other districts about three years ago, Flores says.
Located in leased storefronts, church basements and community centers, the day centers offer about 500 youths their final hope of earning a diploma.
The boom in demand for the day centers reflects the rise in countywide expulsions as well as increased violence in society, especially in neighborhoods plagued with gangs and drug dealers.”
“We have a population that is more violent and more at risk,” Flores says of his students. “This is the last resort for them to attend school.”
Statistics bear out Flores’ concerns about violence. In the 1989-90 academic year, Los Angeles schools saw a 36% rise in the number of students attacked with a deadly weapon. The number of guns confiscated on campus increased 29.2%.
Educators say the day centers provide an important alternative to large, crowded high schools and offer the personalized attention that helps delinquent students succeed. Typically, they consist of two classrooms with 17 students each so authorities can keep a tight watch on discipline.
For many students, the county schools also offer a neutral territory from gang turf wars where they can concentrate on learning. Flores says it’s not unusual for students to land at the county-run special schools after being bounced from five or more high schools for fighting.
With students from 15 gangs often cloistered under one roof at a county school, fistfights are still frequent. But administrators say there were only two serious assaults in the first six months of 1990. Students enrolled in community day centers have a strong deterrent to behave: There is no safety net below them and expulsion from this school means a return to Juvenile Hall or the California Youth Authority.
Because the county does not compile statistics, the overall success of the day centers is unknown. Of 476 students enrolled in the program, 33 earned diplomas last year but Flores said the county does not know how many students were eligible to graduate.
Recently, the county completed a two-year study of one of its special schools in Bellflower. Tracking 118 students at the Southeast Community Day Center School, the study found that 64% were readmitted to regular school, stayed at Southeast, found jobs or graduated. The balance got into trouble and were sent back to youth camps, the California Youth Authority or Juvenile Hall. A handful were killed.
The survey also found that the average Southeast student was 15 1/2, earned a 2.5 grade-point average and stayed at the county school for 2 1/2 months. They came from Compton, Bellflower and Downey. About 90% were male and 75% belonged to gangs. The school was 48% Latino, 26% white, 22% black and 4% Asian. Most were there for offenses such as weapons possession, auto theft and burglary, although 6% had attempted murder or assault with a deadly weapon.
While all expelled students are eligible to reapply for admission to their regular high school after one year, there are no figures on how many actually do.
At Los Angeles Unified, officials estimate that only one-third of those expelled are ever reinstated. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles has expelled 12 students in the last three years but reinstated only one, according to Principal Maria Tostado. “We’ve lost track of the others, " she said.