Last week, the school system in Riverside County, California, was hit with a major lawsuit from multiple legal advocacy organizations over its policy of placing misbehaving and poorly performing students on probation, allegedly funneling them into the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The ACLU, the ACLU of Southern California, the ACLU of Northern California, the ACLU of San Diego, the National Center for Youth Law, and Sheppard Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP, filed a lawsuit to fight what they call “fundamentally unfair processes,” according to a press release from the ACLU.
Though students swept up in the program have committed no crimes, the ACLU says the Youth Accountability Team (YAT) Program, an arm of the probation department, targets students for “school discipline problems and poor academics,” deeming them “at-risk” and effectively treating them like criminals. Other behaviors they seek out in youth include “defiance” and “substance abuse.” The program is ultimately a reflection of America’s growing police state, as the YAT website notes that their “teams” are “located throughout the county and are a collaborative effort between the Probation Department, local law enforcement agencies, District Attorney’s Office, counseling agencies, and various school districts in the County.”
“As it stands, children can be and are being placed on six-month terms of probation without procedural safeguards,” according to the ACLU. “Children and their families are not provided with specific information about the offense they are accused of committing, the terms of YAT probation, the possible consequences of going to court, or advisement of their legal rights.”
The organization press release continues:
“With this lack of information, they sit across from officers of the probation and police departments and purportedly submit to invasive probation conditions and waive their First and Fourth Amendment rights. This is fundamentally unfair, and it violates children’s constitutional due process rights.”
The program, rooted in the “juvenile super-predator” myth, has been in place since 2001 and is based in the belief that scaring young people can divert them away from engaging in criminal activity. This approach has been proven fundamentally flawed, as research shows adolescents respond more to positive incentives and support. “Scared-straight programs, boot camp, and programs that rely on compliance and surveillance, like traditional probation, are ineffective,” the ACLU argues.
It should come as no surprise that heavy-handed efforts to control children in schools have negative effects on them. This is also reflected in parenting techniques that involve withholding love as a means to push a child toward preferable behavior, which can have long-term, damaging emotional effects. Considering the control tactics built into public schooling, from mandatory homework and curriculum to assigned seating, needing permission to use the restroom, and punitive measures like detention, the entire paradigm seems deserving of scrutiny and a softer, more supportive approach that respect’s children’s uniqueness, needs, and freedom.
Some diversion programs, especially community-based ones, can be helpful in keeping troubled students out of detention centers, but Riverside County’s YAT program is instead punishing those students and setting them up for failure. If anything, it’s likely the schools themselves are failing students—not the other way around, and it’s a problem that does not warrant criminalizing them.
In the meantime, Riverside County’s punitive policy continues to treat students who need the most support as criminals in a program that disproportionately affects black and latino students, and it is overdue for reform.
As the ACLU noted:
“The constitutional deficiencies of Riverside’s YAT Program are clear, and the program will continue to violate children’s rights until it is reformed. But reforming the program will not only protect their rights, it presents an opportunity to provide a model for bringing juvenile probation and diversion in line with contemporary research on adolescent development.”