One morning in December 2010 I was leaving for school and as soon as I took one step out the door, I realized I forgot the fundraising papers I needed to turn in that day for a college trip. I searched everywhere in the living room and my bedroom but I couldn’t find them. After 20 minutes I called my mom. She said she put them in a cabinet the night before. At this point I knew I would be about 20 minutes late to school. As someone who had been late four times (at most) in two-and-a-half years, I figured that I’d get a warning or at worst I’d get one day of detention.
As soon as I stepped into the main office at school a Los Angeles Police Department officer asked if I was late and I said yeah. He told me to have a seat. I was nervous. We’re used to having Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies on campus because they’re the school security. But seeing four LAPD officers made me think something was wrong at school.
Sitting there, I noticed other students were getting tickets but I didn’t know what for. I thought the police were ticketing students who were frequently late, so I assumed someone from my school would tell the cops that I didn’t belong in that group. One kid got put in handcuffs because he didn’t want to give his name. I got scared when I realized they were ticketing everyone. I had no idea how much this might cost. My mom once told me that when a traffic camera snaps a picture of a car running a red light the ticket costs like $400. I thought, “It’s gonna be on my record. I’m gonna be a juvenile delinquent.”
When it was my turn the officer asked me how old I was and why I was late. I told him I was 15 and I explained why I was late and that he could call my mom to verify that. He wrote me a ticket with a court date at the bottom. I had no idea why I was getting a ticket for being late. It seemed ridiculous.
When I got to first period my teacher, Ms. Deniz, asked me why I was late. When she saw the ticket in my hand she asked, “You too?” She told me that a few students that day and a few others in the days before had gotten tickets, too.
At lunch I called my mom and told her that I got a ticket. I was scared of her reaction. I’d never done anything bad or gotten in trouble with the cops. “We’ll talk later,” she replied. She did not sound happy. I struggled all day concentrating in my classes.
My mom got home around 4 and I showed her the ticket and explained how I got it in the main office. Her tone changed from anger to worry. I told her that I had heard from other students that this could cost $250. That’s a lot of money for being late. She gave me a hug. I was relieved and told myself I needed to wake up earlier to make sure this never happened again. The next day I woke up 20 minutes earlier and was on time.
A lot of us had gotten tickets
That day I told the other members of Watts Youth Voices, a group at my school that teaches students how to have their voices heard in the community, about the ticket. More than half of the members said that they had gotten stopped by the cops or gotten a ticket on their way to school.
Our teacher, Ms. Coffey, told us that a lot of students had gotten tickets for truancy, which means ditching school. We were pissed off because if students are getting tickets in the main office, we’re not truant, we’re just late. If I had gotten detention I would have been OK with that because I was late, but I wasn’t ditching so I shouldn’t have gotten a ticket.
During that meeting we Googled “truancy tickets and laws.” There was already a local group called the Labor/Community Strategy Center trying to get cops to stop writing truancy tickets. We called them and they told us about their campaign and offered to come to our school to give us more information.
Ashley and Lissett from the Strategy Center met with us the next week and told us that truancy tickets were intended to increase attendance by deterring kids from skipping school. I didn’t think ditching was a problem at my school, Locke #3. There are two or three students absent from most of my classes every day, so why were they writing tickets? Two days after I got my ticket I woke up a little late and I didn’t even bother going to school because I didn’t want to get another. So much for a ticket improving school attendance.
Ashley and Lissett showed us facts that proved how unfair this truancy ticketing is. City and school police issued more than 47,000 tickets from 2004 to 2009 and 88 percent of them went to African Americans and Latinos, who are only 74 percent of district students, according to data compiled by activists through public records requests. This wasn’t that surprising to me. We have three law enforcement agencies (Sheriff’s Department, LAUSD police and LAPD) on or around campus every day. Growing up in this area, there’s a natural distrust of the police so a lot of students don’t like having them at our school every day. People joke around saying our school resembles a prison.
When cops give us tickets for being late it creates a more tense relationship with the students. After getting my ticket I felt uneasy around cops and like I could get ticketed for anything at any moment. This was a weird feeling for me to have about cops. My dad was a probation officer so I grew up understanding they have a job to do.
After learning so much from the Strategy Center, we decided that Watts Youth Voices should do presentations for our classmates. Usually when we announce meetings most people don’t even pay attention. But this time they were asking questions. When we told them their rights they actually had questions like: Could they go to court with an older sibling instead of a parent? No, we told them that you must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. What happens if I don’t pay the ticket? You cannot get a driver’s license. I felt good that I was helping my classmates, but I wished I could help do something to get the truancy ticket law changed.
About a week into summer vacation I got my chance. Ashley and Ms. Coffey asked if Gabriel (another student who got a ticket and he was fingerprinted) and I would testify in front of the Los Angeles City Council about how the truancy ticket policy was unfair. I was nervous but I agreed to testify because I didn’t want to let my nervousness get in the way of something that could help students throughout the city. Ashley emphasized that the council members needed to hear how ridiculous it was that students at Locke were getting tickets for being late to school while they were in the school’s main office.
We knew we needed to prepare before we spoke before the council. If we only complained about the truancy tickets they’d probably think we wanted to get rid of the ticket policy just so we could be late. I wanted them to know how scared I felt when I got the ticket, how it made me feel like a juvenile delinquent, and how worried my mom and I were about getting a $250 fine. That could be money we used to pay bills or buy groceries.
I got intimidated as soon as we entered the council chambers. The room was packed with a few hundred parents, students and other activists prepared to speak about the truancy ticket problem. I had no idea that many people would be there. But it was empowering to see so many people willing to fight.
Teachers and parents were on our side
There was a sixth or seventh grader who got a ticket right after getting off the bus on the way to school. As I heard stories like this, I felt even more strongly that the truancy policy needed to be changed. Teachers who testified said more of their students were missing school rather than being a little late because they were afraid of getting ticketed. And parents said that they had to take unpaid days off from their jobs to go to court for the tickets.
I waited nervously for about 20 minutes before I got to speak. When I started reading my speech the city council members looked interested. This gave me confidence, so I started reading faster, while the one-minute timer was counting down. “… being late that one time could have been a huge problem for my family, so I plead that you please think of a better solution than tickets.”
When I was done I took a deep breath, looked at the timer and saw that I still had 30 seconds left. I felt like I should’ve said more and that reading from the paper made me sound boring.
While Gabriel was speaking I noticed that two of the council members weren’t there. They showed up later. I thought it was ironic that we get truancy tickets for being late to school, yet the council members holding a hearing about truancy show up late and nothing happens to them. I wished I had noticed that and mentioned it while I was speaking.
After the hearing, the council members thanked everyone for coming and said they were very surprised that students were being handcuffed, ticketed on school grounds and fingerprinted. They said that they would look into this more. Outside a reporter asked to interview us. I felt like this was a sign that someone was taking us seriously and not just in a “look what teens can do” way.
Shortly after the school year started, Ashley called asking me to testify again. She said that this hearing could have more impact because we would be testifying in front of Judge Michael Nash, the head of the juvenile court system, and a truancy task force. I had to ask my mom if I could go because I would have to miss school. She hesitated a couple moments. What if I got another ticket while out testifying about fighting truancy tickets? But she said yes and the next day I went to the hearing. I spoke with more emotion this time because I had my speech memorized. I emphasized how getting a ticket made me feel like a delinquent.
On Feb. 13, I testified before the city council’s public safety committee one more time. The council members told us about their proposed changes, which included eliminating fines for the first two times a student is late. We were all happy about that, but we were a little frustrated that fines weren’t dropped completely.
When I got that ticket I never imagined I’d become part of something that would have so much impact. Growing up in Watts I’ve heard teachers and families complaining for years that the youth in our community are getting prepared for prison by getting harassed by the cops. But going through this I realize the impact that individuals can have. If you see a problem in your community you should stand up for what you believe is right, because you aren’t alone.
What is the new truancy law?
If you go to school in Los Angeles, these changes to the truancy law apply to you:
• Students cannot get truancy tickets during the first hour of school. This will prevent students from getting a ticket if they are on their way to school but a bus is running late.
• Students cannot get a ticket for participating in an off-campus protest, like during a walk-out.
• First- and second-time offenders will not get fines. Instead they will receive no more than 20 hours of community service, which could include going to counseling, tutoring or working with an adult to help them find ways to get to school on time.
• On the third offense students would face a fine of $20. The total cost of the ticket could become $155 after court fees are added.
• Police can still issue tickets to students who are intentionally ditching school.
Editor’s note: This story is one of our four stories that we published in 2012 that won L.A. Youth a runner-up award in the 2013 Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism.