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Editorial: Efforts at decriminalization of youth benefit state universities

By Editorial Board

Aug. 25, 2014 2:35 a.m.

It doesn’t make sense to arrest and cite the students you’re trying to send to college – and Los Angeles Unified School District officials are increasingly realizing that.

On Tuesday, LAUSD changed its policy, no longer issuing police citations to students for minor offenses such as fighting, petty theft or possession of tobacco or alcohol. Instead, students will now be directed to counseling and other resources that are supportive, not punitive.

The decision is one more step in decreasing an already troubling police presence in a system that is supposed to foster youth development and prepare youth for college. Minimizing police involvement in LAUSD and decreasing the criminalization of youth will inevitably benefit the University of California and other state universities as more students are led not on a path to prisons, but rather to lecture halls for a degree.

This point has already been rightly made by the UC Student Association’s Invest in Graduation Not Incarceration, Transform Education campaign, which is now entering its second year. The campaign asserts that many underrepresented youth are often subjected to punishment by police and are therefore less likely to graduate.

Research shows how detrimental and discouraging encounters with law enforcement can be for youth. One arrest doubles a child’s chances of dropping out of school, while contact with law enforcement correlates with higher dropout and incarceration rates, according to an October 2013 report by the Labor Community Strategy Center’s Community Rights Campaign.

If any school district is in need of such reform concerning law enforcement, it is LAUSD. In the 2011-2012 year, the district – the second largest in the nation, after New York City – had the highest criminalization rate out of the largest public school system in the country while employing a force of more than 475 police and school safety officers.

For years, students have been cited and arrested by police for minor offenses like being found in possession of alcohol, being on school grounds at unpermitted times or even being tardy to school, though that number has gone down notably in the past few years because of an ease in police involvement, according to the Community Rights Campaign report. Meanwhile, only 66 percent of LAUSD seniors graduated in 2012.

Even worse, LAUSD police contact inevitably affects low-income students of color more than any other group.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 93.9 percent of all tickets from LAUSD police were given to black and Latino students, partly because students of color already make up the vast majority of LAUSD students, according to the 2013 report. That same year, about 72 percent of students in the district were Latino and 10 percent were black students, while 80 percent of all LAUSD students qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches. Therefore, contact with law enforcement is directly impacting the students who have the greatest obstacles to overcome in order to make it to college.

The UC cannot become more diverse or accessible on its own. School officials starting at the primary and secondary levels have as much if not more of a role in making sure the UC represents students of all different backgrounds. That cannot happen if one of the very systems responsible for preparing students for university is treating potential college students like criminals.

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