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Los Angeles schools to ease discipline policies to stem dropouts

By Daina Beth Solomon

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Los Angeles schools will take a more lenient approach to offenses such as alcohol possession and fighting to allow students a better chance to graduate, officials said on Tuesday.

Under the plan, students caught with tobacco, alcohol or marijuana or who commit minor vandalism or get into fights that do not cause serious injury will be disciplined by school administrators and not be arrested or issued citations, which could send them to juvenile court.

Community groups have found the Los Angeles Unified School District disproportionately disciplines young people of color, with black students nearly six times as likely as whites to be issued a violation ticket, according to a report last year by the Labor/Community Strategy Center.

This follows years of calls by rights groups and some government officials to end what the American Civil Liberties Union and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder have called the "school-to-prison pipeline," which they say involves unduly harsh discipline that makes students more likely to leave school and wind up behind bars.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said there will still be consequences when students commit wrongdoing.

“When they stumble, we will be by their side in a way that is restorative as opposed to shackling,” he said.

In 2013, the Los Angeles School Police Department made 1,100 arrests, with 20 percent of those for schoolyard fights without injuries, said Ruth Cusick, staff attorney at Public Counsel.

Stepped up disciplining of students began in the mid-1990s when many school districts adopted so-called "zero tolerance" policies for fights that previously would have been handled by school administrators and students' families.

"You can't graduate if you're not in school," Deasy said. "If you're in jail, you can't graduate." 

The report from the Labor/Community Strategy Center, which was involved in the reform of school discipline announced on Tuesday, found students at Los Angeles schools were arrested and issued tickets more than twice as often as in New York City and several other major urban school districts.

Nationwide, black students are three times more likely than whites to be suspended and expelled, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights.

The plan from Los Angeles officials follows similar work by local leaders in Georgia, Alabama and in Baltimore, Maryland, said Jennifer Bellamy, legislative counsel for the ACLU.

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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