LOS ANGELES — Fifteen-year-old Juan Carlos Amezcua was just five minutes late for school and already at the corner by Theodore Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles when a school police cruiser's siren went off last Nov. 16.
The consequences of what happened next — handcuffing, allegations of rough treatment and a $250 daytime curfew ticket — are still resonating. Juan and his cousin, whom police also stopped, saw their tickets dismissed in juvenile court in January. But, still upset at the encounter, the pair and their parents filed a complaint Feb. 3 with the school district and police concerning officers' behavior.
The presiding judge of Los Angeles County's juvenile court has developed his own doubts about the enforcement of daytime curfews. In January, Judge Michael Nash — after years of hearing complaints — used his discretion to tell court officers to stop ordering minors to pay for violations.
And on Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council will consider proposals from council member Tony Cardenas to eliminate the $250 fines that are part of the daytime curfew and require counseling instead.
Police still want the city council to keep a small fine on the books that could be imposed on repeat offenders, although that amount hasn't been settled yet.
The disputes are indicative of a broader debate over how best to deal with tardy or truant students across the country. Since the 1990s, cities large and small have adopted daytime curfews to force kids to get to school. Dallas, which initiated a daytime curfew in 2010, also is starting to field complaints about penalties that run as high as $500.
The Los Angeles debate is being watched nationally, said Judith Browne-Dianis, a co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington-based group that's involved in education policies. The metropolis is a "trend setter for the rest of the country, to show that there are other ways to get youth engaged in school," she said.
Aggressive enforcement of the daytime curfew, which Los Angeles adopted in 1995, has strained students' relations with police in recent years. Early-morning police "sweeps" that netted kids as they approached schools inspired a movement to protest students being handcuffed and then forced to miss more school to go to juvenile court to deal with tickets.
Students who arrive late in cars with their parents driving have escaped ticketing because they're with their parents, not in violation of the daytime curfew.
Calls for change seemed to be gaining acceptance when, last April and then in October, respectively, the chiefs of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District's police issued guidelines that officers consider "the spirit" of curfew laws and avoid targeting students who were clearly on their way to school.
Sgt. Ken Kimbrough, a school police spokesman, said the intent of the sweeps wasn't to issue fines but to help kids stay in school and direct them to counseling and family services. "Could there have been some overzealous officers out there? Sure," he said. "But that's why the chief put out new guidelines."
But experiences such as Juan's in November gave rise to questions about how police were continuing to treat suspected truants.
Juan and his cousin, who's also 15, were one block from school when school officers stopped them, handcuffed them and searched them. When Juan said, "You can't do this," an officer used profanity and told him to "shut ... up or else I'll slap you in the face," according to the complaint.
Kimbrough said he couldn't discuss the complaint because it was confidential and under investigation.
In January, crusaders for curfew revisions had cause to celebrate when Judge Nash announced that he was stopping the imposition of fines for daytime curfew tickets.
"I'm not interested in collecting money," Nash told the Center for Public Integrity. Fines, he said, have proved "onerous. At the end of the day, it's not an effective system."
Instead, Nash said, he wants court officers to dismiss tickets for students who are clearly headed to school, albeit late, and to give minors who are truly truant a series of opportunities to prove that they're attending school or submitting to counseling.
Nash's policy is good only as long as he remains on the bench, however, which explains why Cardenas and others still think they should amend the ordinance.
Nash's conclusions are reflected in a report that the Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force, which Nash chairs, issued earlier this month. Cardenas, police officials and civil rights representatives participated in the task force.
The report called the daytime curfew citations a "blunt tool" that can lead to "unnecessary criminalization" of students. "Involving youth in the criminal justice system has the detrimental and unintended consequences of reducing their chances of graduating high school," the report says.
Los Angeles' daytime curfew originally was embraced as a tool to fight juvenile crime — police say it still serves that purpose — and as a way to boost graduation rates. But the district's high school graduation rate is still one of the worst in California, with the district's calculation at 56 percent and the state's at 64 percent.
(The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit group focused on investigative journalism.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY