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Seal Beach OKs Controversial Daytime Youth Curfew Law

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Seal Beach has become the second city in Orange County to adopt a controversial daytime curfew ordinance, with supporters praising the law as a crackdown on truancy and opponents decrying it as a usurping of parental rights and children’s personal freedom.

Like a similar law passed in La Habra last month, the Seal Beach ordinance affirms the state education code mandating that children from age 6 to 17 attend school from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., unless they have a parent’s permission to be absent from class.

The ordinance was modeled after one suggested by an alliance of the county’s police chiefs, school administrators and district attorneys, who are seeking adoption of such curfews in all of the county’s 31 cities as a way to fight truancy and juvenile crime. So far, only a few cities have considered the ordinance, with Villa Park a couple of weeks ago rejecting it as too broad and Fullerton tabling the matter indefinitely.

Seal Beach’s ordinance, which takes effect in late October, gives police officers the right to issue citations to children found loitering in parks, playgrounds, shopping malls, streets and other public areas during school hours. Those ticketed face fines up to $100 for the first offense; $200 for the second, and $250 for the third. The fines can be waived by the courts and replaced with community service obligations, counseling requirements or other penalties.

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The council’s taking up the ordinance set off a lengthy debate Monday, with sometimes emotional pleas from more than two dozen opponents who feared that rather than protect the public, the curfew would violate civil liberties. Most verbal in their opposition were parents who teach their children at home, represented by a group calling itself Citizens for Responsible and Constitutional Laws, who contended that the law is an outright violation of their parental and the students’ civil rights.

But the law’s supporters said it would allow police to more effectively deal with children truant from school. Under current law, truants picked up by police usually are returned to school or home, authorities said.

Police Chief William Stearns said the ordinance provides officers the “teeth” they need to reign in chronically truant teens and reduce juvenile crime.

He cited the example of Monrovia, a San Gabriel Valley community that adopted a daytime curfew ordinance in 1994. Officials there say they have seen a 38% drop in crimes committed by juveniles--including auto burglary, auto theft, larceny and residential burglary--since the law took effect.

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“These are the types of crimes we have in Seal Beach that we would expect to see a drop in,” Stearns said.

Supporter Carla Watson, one of about a dozen who spoke in favor of the ordinance, said that although “we need to guard our liberties and rights very closely, we need to support the police and give them the tools to keep gangs from our city.”

Watson said Seal Beach could become a dumping ground for truants and troublemakers from other communities if police aren’t given the authority to issue citations. Thirty Los Angeles County cities, including Long Beach, have passed similar ordinances, and residents said they fear truants from those areas will travel to Seal Beach to avoid penalties in their hometowns.

“We send a message out there that we are a wide-open city if we don’t pass this,” Watson said.

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But critics said they feared the law would cast too wide a net.

Dave Buffett, whose five children are taught at home, said his kids would be vulnerable to citations because they are often outside during regular school hours when they take breaks from their lessons.

“I see as many potential problems [in the ordinance] as you have people sitting here,” Buffett said, referring to the packed council chambers.

“We didn’t elect you to force your opinions on us. We’re telling you we don’t want it,” he added.

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Rex Wegter, a teacher and youth minister with Grace Community Church in Seal Beach, said he feared that police would arbitrarily approach children who leave school early for religious functions.

“We want some assurance that the kids won’t be hassled if they leave early for an activity,” he said. “Will they be fined for a family activity? Our permission as a parent should be enough.”

In an effort to calm some residents’ fears that officers might be overzealous in enforcing the law, Mayor Gwen Forsythe added an amendment to the ordinance that exempts children accompanied by their parents from receiving citations. “We won’t be waiting with a SWAT team,” she said.

After the curfew takes effect, the council will receive quarterly reports on its progress from the Police Department.

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Robyn Nordell, an organizer of Citizens for Responsible and Constitutional Laws, said she was “not surprised but exceptionally disappointed” by Monday’s vote. She vowed to continue her attempts to keep similar ordinances from other Orange County cities.


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