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Is This a Youth Diversion Program or School-to-Prison Pipeline Feeder System?

Photo: iStock Prior to a few years ago, I had never heard of a preschool student being suspended from school. The idea made no sense to me. How could a 3-, 4-, or 5-year-old child who is still learning the basics of sitting still for more than five minutes at a time possibly learn anything from such a punitive action? Would they even know what was happening?

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As school districts across the country began to adopt stricter rules and policies that attached criminal infractions to offenses that would have once just been considered children being children, I began to understand that there was a method to the madness. These types of punishments and punitive actions help to funnel children through the school-to-prison pipeline .

In Riverside, Calif., county law enforcement has created a program that puts children on probation for bad grades and other non-criminal offenses, holding the threat of prosecution over their heads for what is described as “pre-delinquent” behavior.

The Appeal reports that the Youth Accountability Team was created in 2001 to intervene on behalf of at-risk before they got into more serious trouble. The way that it operates now, it is more of a feeder system for the school-to-prison pipeline as teachers, school administrators and law enforcement officials use it as a form of school punishment.

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The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on July 1 (pdf) against Riverside County, the chief of the Riverside County Probation Department and the deputy chief of the Riverside County Probation Department, alleging the program circumvents due process and subjects its participants to unreasonable searches and seizures under California law, violating the right to freedom of expressive association, and adversely impacting Black and Latinx students.

The students in the YAT program are most often charged with violating Section 601(b) of the California Wellness and Institutions Code—a statute that penalizes minors who “persistent[ly] or habitual[ly] refuse to obey the reasonable and proper orders or directions of school authorities.”

The language in that statute is vague, almost purposely so. As an example of what that can mean, the suit says one black child was referred to the program for “pulling the race card.”

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The lawsuit alleges that students are swept “into six-month terms of probation through its ‘Youth Accountability Team” (‘YAT’) Program, for being ‘defiant,’ ‘easily persuaded by peers,’ or tardy to school; using ‘inappropriate language’; and behavior associated with grieving over the death of a parent.”

Once in the program, they are subjected to home searches and drug tests—things they must comply with or risk being referred to the district attorney for prosecution.

“Riverside County,” the complaint says, “through the collective efforts of its law enforcement agencies, has subverted the purpose of the law under which the YAT program was created by quietly sweeping tens of thousands of children and adolescents into punitive probation supervision for the “offense” of childish behavior. These children are put on contracts that impose a laundry list of onerous conditions that set young people up to fail and also cause them to fall deeper into the criminal system.”

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The truth of what the program is really about comes from the mouth of former Senior Probation Officer Debbie Waddell, who said, “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!”

Former Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Villalobos expounded on Waddell’s statements and said, “We can do all kinds of surveillance, including wiretaps on phones, without having to get permission from a judge.”

Although YAT is supposed to be a diversionary program, the suit alleges that it actually leaves children worse off than if they had actually gone through the juvenile justice system.

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“YAT probation keeps the harmful contacts with the criminal system while eschewing procedural protections,” the complaint says. “Placing a child on YAT probation includes none of the safeguards of judicial process, such as access to appointed counsel, adequate notice of charges or the underlying facts, or any kind of impartial decision maker. At the same time, it imposes consequences that are often more severe than those that would be imposed by a court.”

Additionally, the suit alleges that YAT draws more children into the criminal justice system than it diverts.

Then, of course, there is this:

Compounding the problems with YAT, Defendants place children on YAT probation contracts through an entirely informal process that is void of basic safeguards of procedural due process. Children ostensibly agree to submit to conditions of probation that interfere with fundamental liberty under coercive circumstances that preclude knowing, voluntary, or intelligent consent. Families also ostensibly agree to comply under the same coercive conditions. The Defendants fail to provide children and families with any formal notice of what children are charged with or the underlying allegations, their legal rights, or the juvenile court process. Instead, referral to YAT is communicated through a brief, informal, and inadequate conversation by phone or in person at school, in which Defendants sometimes blatantly misrepresent the nature of the YAT program and the consequences of not acquiescing to YAT probation.

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The students and their families are often told that if they do not comply with the program, they will be referred to the district attorney for prosecution, even if no criminal offense is involved.

To make matters worse, the lawsuit claims that that law enforcement officials use YAT to “compile and exchange a vast amount of information about a child, including their school records, which may include special education records, counseling records, details about their family history including contact with the justice system, substance abuse, domestic violence, and history with other social service agencies, and individual family member information,” information which law enforcement “would have been prohibited from obtaining under the Fourth Amendment.”

That compiled information is then kept on file even if the student successfully completes the YAT probation, and can be potentially used against them in any future juvenile court proceedings.

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On top of all of this, if a student participates in YAT—no matter the circumstances—that precludes them from being able to participate in any other diversion program in the future.

Take into account this note from The Appeal:

From 2005 to 2016, 12,971 youths were under a YAT contract, 25 percent of whom were accused of a noncriminal offense, according to the complaint. Black students were 2.5 times and Latinx students were 1.5 times more likely than white students to be accused of a Section 601(b) violation from 2003 to 2016.

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The lawsuit asks the court to prohibit enforcement of Section 601(b); to stop families and students from being coerced into signing YAT contracts without a full explanation of their charges and legal rights; to stop the searches of students’ homes and personal property; to prevent the records compiled on students from being used against them in the future; and to keep the program from being used in a way that disproportionately targets Black and Latinx students.

I will keep an eye on this to see what the outcome is.