City and school officials in Los Angeles had a good idea a few years back when they began ticketing students for truancy. It was also a good idea for them to back away from that approach, as they did over the last year. The expensive citations didn’t work because the second, more important part of the program — to get to the bottom of why a student played hooky or was chronically late, and to provide the counseling and services to turn him or her around — wasn’t carried out. A new, gentler plan has real merit, but it will fail too if the Los Angeles Unified School District doesn’t make good on its pledge to provide both the discipline and the services to change students’ behavior.
Under the previous rules, city and school police issued tickets with fines of up to $250 to students who were out on the streets during school hours — including students who were on their way to school. Community activists complained that during the hour or so immediately after school started, police would wait along the most popular routes to campus and write tickets to students who were running late. Some students, if they knew they would be tardy, stayed home rather than face the possibility of a ticket.
The price was steep for families. Court fees and state fines could push the cost of a ticket up to $1,000, and mandated court appearances meant lost work time for parents and more lost school time for students. Meanwhile, the so-called holistic part of the program, in which city officials, social workers and others were supposed to try to find out why students were missing school and resolve those problems, seemed to be quickly forgotten.
Yet that part of the program was key. If a high school student is late because both his parents work early in the morning and rely on him to take a younger sibling safely to elementary school, no number of $250 tickets is going to change the situation. No wonder the truancy rate rose during the heyday of the citations.
We’re glad to see the district putting the emphasis on counseling truant and tardy students, not on ticketing them. The right time for students to be pulled into the justice system is when they commit crimes, not when they are late to class. School officials also should implement discipline for repeated truancy and other minor rule-breaking — on-campus detention or community service rather than a visit to court. But the most important element is, again, getting to the root of minor infractions. The district is off to a good start, but if it lets its counseling efforts falter, the soft approach will be just as ineffective as the tough-love policy was.