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California Lawsuit Offers Cautionary Tale on School-Based Probation Programs

By Guest Blogger Sarah D. Sparks

Riverside County, Calif., government settled a class action lawsuit with the American Civil Liberties Union Wednesday evening 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.

Students in YAT could be cited for "anti-social behavior" such as talking in or leaving class or "general disrespect" such as talking back to a teacher or security guard. They could also be "charged" for mental health problems including attempting suicide. One Latina 7th grade girl was cited for being frequently tardy and "easily influenced by peers."

"The probation department became an easy available source for schools and administrators to refer a child, rather than think, 'What other types of resources do we have that this child might be in need of?' " Hinger said. "So a lot of the things that we found being addressed through a probation program were things like struggling with grades or minor disciplinary infractions. In one instance, a child was even referred to probation because he appeared to be struggling with grief over the death of a relative." Black and Latino students were disproportionately likely to be referred to the program; the propertion of black boys referred to the program was more than three times higher than their share of enrollment.

Some districts that had partnerships with YAT broke ties when the ACLU began investigating the probation program.

Under the settlement, school districts in the county cannot refer students under age 18 to the program for status offenses or breaking school rules without committing crimes. Any student who is referred also has the right to more protections during the process, such as a  written explanation of the behavior for which they are being referred; free legal counsel; and explanation of the details of the program for them and their families. Moreover, students cannot be asked to admit guilt or to take drug tests if they were not referred for drug offenses. 

The county also will provide grants over the next five years to community organizations to work with at-risk students. 

Partnerships between schools and juvenile justice agencies can help at-risk students avoid becoming involved in the justice system, but the settlement highlights several ways district leaders can avoid problems:

  • Avoid referring students to law enforcement staff for behavior that breaks school rules but is not criminal.
  • If a program could bring the student into the justice system, put processes in place to make sure the student and their family understand their rights.
  • Consider partnering with social services and health agencies and community organizations, in addition to law enforcement groups, to provide more supports to at-risk students. 

"One big takeaway from some of the experts we talked to is that, we know inherently that kids are learning; they're going to make some missteps and mess up," Hinger said. "Research shows that ... once a kid is involved with the justice system, it can escalate further negative consequences."

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