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Speaking Out for Students

 Nabil Romero 002

Byline: Susan LaTempa

Last month, Liberty Hill grantee Labor Community Strategy Center and allies including grantees Youth Justice Coalition and CADRE hailed a decision by L.A. Unified School District Police to follow the example set by the LAPD in April and stop  failed "truancy ticket" policies.

"Truancy tickets" were once touted as tools against attendance problems but were in fact pushing kids away from school and resulting in racial profiling.

It's a victory for students like Nabil Romero, a freshman at West L.A. College, who says, “You just see the statistic, you don’t ever hear about the struggle behind it. I want to speak up  because when people hear what I went through they know it’s not just about me, but it’s me and my mother and my brother.”

When you hear about police giving out "truancy tickets," you might envision officers finding school-skippers loitering around malls or convenience stores. But in fact, Labor Community Strategy Center learned from students that police were conducting "sweeps" outside targeted high schools in the minutes just after classes began. As students arrived for school, sometimes just after being dropped off by a parent, sometimes with a parent's written excuse in hand, sometimes just stepping off a Metro bus, they'd be slapped with a $250 ticket that required a court appearance with a parent.

Nabil, who's turning 18 this month and hopes to become a doctor, was a senior at Roybal Learning Center when he was twice handcuffed and prevented by school police from attending classes that he was late for but urgently trying to get to. How do we know he was trying to get to class? For one thing, he was on the football team and it was game day. You have to be in school on game day to play!  

Nabil became a student activist with Labor Community Strategy Center and testified in August at Juvenile Court Judge Michael Nash’s  Truancy Task Force which is investigating alternatives to the punitive policies that are pushing kids into what a Harvard study calls "the school-to-prison pipeline."  

He told the task force how on one occasion, he was with about eight to 10 kids exiting the city bus and heading into school. They were all cuffed, searched, put into squad cars and taken to a detention hall until afternoon.  Another time Nabil and his brother unexpectedly had to walk the distance that they usually covered with two bus rides. As they got near campus, wearing their jayvee and varsity football jerseys, they were stopped by police, cuffed, ticketed and questioned until they’d missed the classes they were hurrying to on foot.

Nabil had tried to stand up for himself and fight the $300 fine by going to court, even though it meant his mother losing a day of work and him missing another day of school. He wanted to explain to a judge how unfair the ticket was. “If you’re going to blame somebody,” he says, “Give a ticket to somebody for walking away from school not walking to school.” Other students report that if even if they're just a few minutes late, they stay away from school to avoid getting a ticket their family can't afford.

But he wasn't successful fighting the ticket alone. Then he learned of other students who’d been helped by Labor Community Strategy Center. With counseling and legal help, his ticket was dismissed. Then, "since I felt like honestly that if you do something for me I’m going to do something way better for you," he wanted to get involved in the Strategy Center's Community Rights Campaign.

 "I attended a meeting aimed at other young teenagers who have been affected, have seen others affected, or who just wanted to help make a change. We brainstormed for the hearing where I made my speech to the Truancy Task Force."

Of the 47,000 tickets that were issued in 2004-09, 62% were given to Latino students, 20% were given to Black students, just 7% were given to white students, and 11% were given to other students. “My mom works in Beverly Hills near the high school,” Nabil says, “And she never sees this happening to kids there.”

The new policy prohibits “sweeps” during the first hour of classes or the ticketing of students on the way to school, and requires police to see if students have a valid excuse or parent note in reference to “daytime curfew” violations.

In addition to working to change the ticketing policies, activists have pushed for "positive behavorial support" rather than punitive disciplinary policies that make normal non-criminal behavior cause for police action. According to the Public Counsel Law Center, Labor Community Strategy Center and CADRE, the positive approach has positive results. At Roosevelt High School, after ticketing stopped, attendance went up 50%.  At Edison Middle School, with School-Wide Positive Behavioral Support (SWPBS), suspensions have fallen from 255 in 2005 to 24 in 2009-10.

Says Nabil, "I learned firsthand the concept that united we stand and separate we fall because if we all unite and speak up for ourselves and the others around us we can move towards making a positive change in society that will benefit us all," and adds, "I thank the Strategy Center for having given me the chance to speak up for all the other students that have been harassed and oppressed by this biased, prejudiced and unjustified law."