Plugging the 'pipeline'
Officials demand more information on police contact with students
Given the fact that Latino kids comprise nearly two-thirds of Pasadena Unified School District’s student population, it’s statistically understandable that Latino middle school and high school students would account for nearly that many of all PUSD suspensions in fall 2010 and spring 2011.
Local school officials and civic leaders, however, expressed concern over the fact that, of the district’s 6,940 middle- and high-school aged students, there were a total of 687 suspensions last school year. Equally worrisome to some members of the Board of Education, among them Board President Renatta Cooper and Board member Ramon Miramontes, is the lack of information being provided to the board about those suspensions and incidents like the arrests of three teens at John Muir High School in spring 2011.
What is not yet known is how many suspensions were generated by interactions between students and police officers, who made 187 “contacts” with high school and middle school students in calendar year 2011 for alleged offenses that ranged from petty theft to burglary to battery to assault with a deadly weapon. In addition, officials have been unable to provide an exact number of students arrested as a result of those contacts.
Both board members said they knew nothing of the circumstances behind the two separate incidents at Muir, and Cooper said she was unaware that a teenage boy at Pasadena High School caught passing a forged permission note was detained and talked to in private not by an administrator, but a police officer.
“Our students should never be alone with non-PUSD employees,” said Miramontes, who told the Pasadena Weekly about the PHS incident.
“An administrator is required to be there,” said Miramontes. “He was interrogated, but the police chief claims it was a ‘counseling’ session. Does the police officer have a master’s credential in counseling? Our employees don’t do law enforcement, and the police shouldn’t do the school administrators’ jobs. “I am worried the administrators are finding it easier to allow a law enforcement agent to do their job,” Miramontes continued. “It is becoming a scary trend that we let the juvenile justice system do what the school used to do. We have no idea how many kids have appeared in front of a judge.”
From school to jail
Questions about student interactions with police officers are being raised locally against the backdrop of a national debate on a phenomenon that’s come to be called the “school to prison pipeline.” In these scenarios, students of color get into trouble, but instead of the incident being treated as a school issue, it becomes a police matter, accompanied by interaction with officers, the issuance of fines and often incarceration.
According to data released last year by the US Department of Education, school disciplinary actions disproportionately impact children of color. One study found that African-American students are nearly three times as likely to be suspended and three and a half times as likely to be expelled as their white peers. Numerically, African-American students make up only 17 percent of public school students but account for 34 percent of all suspensions. Latino students are one and a half times as likely to be suspended and twice as likely as their white counterparts to be expelled from school.
Suspension figures compiled by PUSD for fall 2010 and 2011 show Marshall Fundamental School, one the district’s highest academically performing schools with an API State Index score of 737 and a racially diverse middle- and high-school population of 1,868, chalked up 129 suspensions or 6.9 percent of all of its high school and middle school students. Muir High had a 12.5 percent suspension rate, Blair International Baccalaureate School, which also has a middle school, racked up 118 suspensions, or 10.2 percent of the school’s student population, and Pasadena High came in at 8 percent with 138 suspensions.
The combined numbers paint something of a distorted image when alternative education programs like Rose City Continuation High School, Focal Point Academy and CIS Academy, which have a combined student population of 748, are factored into the equation. When only counting the 6,192 students who attend the district’s comprehensive high schools, the suspension rate declines from 9.8 percent to 8.8 percent.
But as troubling — or reassuring — as those adjusted numbers may be, the fact remains some members of the Pasadena Board of Education, including the board’s president, are only now learning about the actual number of suspensions, nearly a full year after they occurred, as well as other incidents involving Pasadena police and students in spring 2011.
An incident in January, in which a 17-year-old boy at Pasadena High was questioned outside the presence of a teacher, administrator, parent or lawyer by a police officer after being detained for allegedly passing a forged permission slip, is now raising questions about how much students and local police actually interact on a daily basis.
Pasadena police Lt. Phlunte Riddle confirmed that the incident between the male PHS student and an officer occurred, but she described the officer’s actions as “counseling” the youth, not interrogating him. The child, who is white (white students account for 19 percent of PHS’ 2,070 students), was not identified because of his age. He was not suspended or otherwise disciplined, said Miramontes.
Riddle also confirmed that three teenage boys at Muir High, where 29 percent of the students are African American and 66 percent are Latino, were arrested in two separate incidents on April 1, 2011 — neither of which the two board members were aware of until recently. One of those altercations involved an alleged assault on an officer by a 14-year-old Latino youngster. The second incident involved two 17-year-old children — one African American and one Latino — who were arrested for fighting with each other on campus by the same officer, authorities confirmed.
The fate of these children in the hands of the criminal justice system remains unknown. The two brawlers were arrested on suspicion of battery. The younger of the two, who was unarmed, was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer, a felony, documents show. Police redacted the names of the three boys from copies of incident reports provided to the Weekly, and authorities have declined to provide their names.
What is known is that none of those children were ever formally suspended, according to Miramontes and Cooper, who said board records indicate there were no suspensions resulting from any incidents on the Muir campus that day.
Riddle did not immediately know how many local middle school and high school students were arrested in 2010 and 2011. The department’s memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the PUSD, which the department has provided with security services since 2005, does not require disclosure of that information to district officials.
According the records obtained from police, during the 2011 calendar year, officers had 162 contacts with students at Muir, Blair, Marshall and PHS, resulting in reports being filed. Police logged 58 reports for incidents stemming from PHS, 56 from Muir, 27 from Blair and 21 from Marshall. Washington Middle School generated 12 such police reports and Wilson Middle School contributed 13 to the total. Specific information on the alleged crimes listed was not immediately available. It was also not known if any of those contacts resulted in arrests.
Pasadena Weekly has filed state Public Records Act requests with the Police Department and PUSD, respectively, for specific data related to the nature and number of student arrests made on local campuses over the past three years, as well as suspension data from last year to the present day.
“School safety is important,” said Latino activist Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social. “The real question is, is the treatment equitable? Are police on campus at the high-performing schools, and are they interrogating those kids? How many kids from the high-performing kids are being ticketed and sent to court?”
Community activist Martin Gordon, a former spokesman for the ACLU’s Pasadena Chapter, said he’s spoken with local police officers who patrol campuses and has been told that they try to build relationships with the students. But, he said, “They said if the school personnel called them to deal with something that is a school issue, we are dealing with it as police officers. We will arrest them,” Gordon recalled one officer saying. “School issues actually become criminal issues. We have a great potential for things that might be school issues to become police issues.”
Miramontes demanded more transparency on police interactions with children on PUSD campuses. “We just don’t know, and that’s absurd for us not to know,” he said.
The board will take another look at the district’s MOU with the Police Department sometime after Police Chief Phil Sanchez and PUSD Superintendent Jon Gundry review the document. A meeting time has not yet been set.
No Pasadena Board of Education members interviewed for this report knew exactly how many students had been suspended the previous year or last semester. Nor did any of those interviewed, except Miramontes, know about the Pasadena High student who was questioned in January by Officer Lockner over a forged permission slip.
Miramontes said the district will examine protocols and policies related to searches and requests for police action. He wants to see more communication between the department and the school district when it comes to officers interacting with students.
“Some people may like to have a uniformed cop on school grounds because it makes them feel better, but I have yet to see a report that says this makes our schools safer, and if we see a report like that, I will stand corrected in public,” Miramontes said.
Gordon, who has asked for three years worth of data on student suspensions, said he doesn’t blame police. “The school board should have mandated an evaluation. They dropped the ball. It’s not good leadership,” he said. n