Riverside County, Calif., government settled a class action lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union last week over a controversial school-based probation program, highlighting potential pitfalls in how schools partner with law enforcement on campus.
The county’s probation office partnered with more than 20 local districts to refer students for “family conflict, mental health, school adjustment, or gang involvement” for a stringent, six-month program intended to divert “at-risk” students from juvenile justice.
In the suit, the ACLU and and Sigma Beta Xi, a local youth mentoring organization, had alleged that the school-based Youth Accountability Team program “set [students] up to fail” with a stringent monitoring system for children and adolescents who broke school rules that recorded infractions in a criminal record.
“We are very excited about these settlement terms and what they mean for a change systematically in the approach to students and young people in the county,” said Sarah Hinger, the lead ACLU attorney representing the students.
School-based probation programs have been used across the country for decades, and for the most part they’ve drawn less controversy than the higher-profile school resource officers. Yet as with police officers, research suggests that simply having law enforcement on campus can make it more likely that misbehavior that would otherwise be handled in the school triggers a law enforcement response.
The nearly 13,000 students in Riverside County’s Youth Accountability Team program from 2005 to 2016 signed a contract allowing campus-based parole officers to conduct random drug tests or search them or their home at any time—including during tests and classes. The students could only interact with other students approved by the program and were given 8 p.m. curfews.
Those conditions are common for students on formal court-ordered probation, but the YAT program solicited school referrals for students who had not been convicted or even charged with a crime. From 2005 to 2016, more than 3,200 students—some as young as 1st grade—were placed in the probation program for non-criminal behaviors, including tardiness and cursing. The ACLU found 76 percent of students referred for criminal behavior in the first five years of the program had committed “staus offenses,” such as truancy, which are illegal for youth but not adults.
The ACLU’s original complaint quoted Senior Probation Officer Debbie Waddell describing the program in a way that clearly evoked the school-to-prison pipeline: “What we’re really doing is using this program to get them into the system by fingerprinting and photographing them. We can search their homes any time we want and work to obtain evidence against them so that when we can get ‘em, we can really get ‘em!”
Riverside County and the YAT program did not return requests for comment by press time.
There are few evaluations of school-based probation programs, but two studies of programs in Pennsylvania and Virginia each found students in the programs were more likely to be cited for probation violations or for status offences.
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