Chief Justice backs school discipline reform

December 15, 2013

By Daniel Weintraub

Supreme Court Justices write opinions for a living, but they are not known for expressing their opinions outside of their chambers, where they deliberate in secret.

But the California court’s relatively new Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is not a slave to convention.

Cantil-Sakauye, who knows a thing or two about juvenile justice from her long career as a prosecutor and judge, has lately made that issue her cause, campaigning for reforms she thinks would be fairer and smarter – more just — while also making our streets safer.

Earlier this month she was in Anaheim to bring a spotlight to the issue of school discipline, and the question of whether a rush to suspend and expel misbehaving students is backfiring.

Cantil-Sakauye headlined a two-day conference on the issue and spoke to me by phone after her presentation. She spoke carefully, as you might expect, but she didn’t try to bury her point under a mountain of legalese.

Briefly, it was this: kids who are suspended or expelled are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, and kids who enter the juvenile justice system are more likely to end up in jail or prison as adults.

That might seem obvious. Kids who disrupt their schools are typically troubled kids, and troubled kids get in trouble.

That’s true. But not all troubled kids end up in prison. And if we could find a way to set them straight before they get there, or even prevent their problems in the first place, we could save a lot of heartbreak, misery and money.

“I always felt that if we put more resources in on the front end rather than the back end of a person’s life, we could give them a better shot at becoming more productive,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

The justice says she understands why some teachers, administrators and parents might be skeptical of what she and many others are saying. It might sounds as if they are saying we should go easy on trouble-makers.

“I would say to those folks, I understand your concern,” she told me. “I have children, I understand the concerns, that children who are disruptive can interfere with the education of others, it can even pose a safety challenge. I don’t discount that concern.”

But kicking kids out of school, she said, is a short-term answer.

“It might be a temporary Band-Aid to that hour, that day, that class, but it creates more problems down the road.”

As an alternative, Cantil-Sakayue is suggesting that the courts, the schools, probation departments, mental health professionals and others come together to look for ways to discipline kids while keeping them in school and engaged.

One idea is student courts, where peers judge their classmates’ acts and mete out punishment, often with the goal of making victims whole.

“We need to look at a holistic approach to solving the discipline issue. We need to rethink school discipline, its impact on students and the community, including the court system.”

Los Angeles County has been a leader in recent years in reforming the way kids are disciplined in school. The LA Unified School District, for instance, banned suspensions based on “willful defiance,” – a vaguely defined offense that led to a huge number of suspensions for non-violent, non-drug related incidents. The district also began creating alternatives to suspension and committed to making restorative justice programs available districtwide by 2020.

The county, meanwhile, closed its Juvenile Traffic Court, which had handled charges of fare evasion, disturbing the peace, alcohol possession and tagging, among others, often with little due process and heavy fines, according to critics. Those offenses are now handled by the Probation Department, without the court’s involvement.

The city reformed its daytime curfew laws, ending enforcement on school grounds or for kids on their way to school. Students getting their first and second citations are now diverted to programs aimed at addressing the problems that led them to be truant. Third offenses faces an $20 fine.

The result: contacts are down 90 percent and citations have plummeted as well. In the first quarter of 2013, 143 students had completed the diversion program, and only 26 had been referred to the probation department for failing to meet with a counselor.

These programs and others will still need to be studied to see if keeping those kids out of the criminal justice systems also steers them from lives of crime. The truth is, we can’t do much worse than we were doing under the old rules.

The Chief Justice points out that there is another benefit to diverting kids from the justice system.

“We can focus our resources on those kids who really belong there,” she said.

Daniel Weintraub has covered California public policy for more than 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report. Reach him at dweintraub@gmail.com

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