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California County Law Enforcement Puts Kids On Probation for Bad Grades

A new lawsuit says Riverside County’s probation officers threaten to prosecute kids for ‘pre-delinquent’ behavior.

Steven Depolo/Flickr Creative Commons

Andrew M.’s first interaction with the criminal justice system began with an orange.

On Feb. 9, 2017, when he was 13, Andrew was playfully kicking the fruit around with some friends on school grounds during lunch, when he accidentally sent the orange in the direction of a Moreno Valley officer standing nearby. The orange went through the officer’s legs, and Andrew was handcuffed and shepherded into the principal’s office, where the assistant principal searched his backpack and found marijuana. Andrew received a civil infraction for possession that day. A month later, he was instructed to show up at the police station to discuss probation. Sitting in a windowless room with his father, grandmother, uncle, and two officers, including one who was armed, Andrew was handed a contract and told that he could participate in the Youth Accountability Team (YAT) probation program for six months instead of going to juvenile court.

Andrew, now 15, is one of four named plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in the Central District of California on July 1 against Riverside County, as well as the chief and deputy chief of the county’s probation department, over the Youth Accountability Team. According to the lawsuit, approximately 400 kids and teenagers in 17 school districts in Riverside County are funneled into the program for “pre-delinquent” or “delinquent” conduct each year—labels assigned by school administrators law enforcement officials, community members, and some parents for school discipline problems, mental health issues, poor academics, and family conflicts. One sixth grader was allegedly referred in part because school staff complained that he had used the “race card” against them.

According to the lawsuit, YAT probation skirts due process, leads to unreasonable searches and seizures under California law, violates the right to freedom of expressive association, and adversely impacts Black and Latinx students like Andrew.

Scared, confused, and without a lawyer to consult, Andrew signed the contract. He had to attend school, earn good grades, abide by an 8 p.m. curfew, participate in 25 hours of community service, meet with a probation officer regularly, follow all YAT instructions, go to counseling, go to weekly programs facilitated by the Moreno Valley Police Department, and visit a correctional facility. Any violation could result in a referral to the Riverside County district attorney’s office for possible prosecution. Upon signing, Andrew was repeatedly forced to leave class to talk to YAT officers, who also conducted house visits. On one occasion, he was pulled out of class to fill out a YAT survey, even though it meant he would miss a Spanish quiz. Even after sticking to these strict conditions, Andrew was still summoned to Superior Court less than two weeks after signing. He ultimately pleaded guilty to the marijuana possession charge and received a sentence of 10 community service hours, an agreement to complete a drug test, and a fine.  

The YAT program was created in 2001 to identify “at-risk” youth and intervene before they got into more serious trouble. But teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement officials use the program as a form of school discipline, the lawsuit asserts. Students are often charged with violating Section 601(b) of the California Wellness and Institutions Code, a vague statute that penalizes minors who “persistent[ly] or habitual[ly] refuse to obey the reasonable and proper orders or directions of school authorities” by allowing local officials to place them on probation. Like Andrew, many students say they were told that if they violated these “informal” conditions of probation, they would be referred to the DA. They subsequently have to jump through hoops—like submitting to home searches and drug tests—to avoid violating their contracts.

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. 

A PowerPoint slide from a Riverside County Probation Department presentation on the Youth Accountability Team at the 2012 Juvenile Delinquency Symposium. Riverside County Probation Department

“It’s kind of like this expedited version of the school-to-prison pipeline by having this extrajudicial system operating exclusively through the school,” said Hannah Comstock of the ACLU, which was among the plaintiff’s counsel. But, the lawsuit states, young people generally opt into the program without legal counsel present and without a full grasp of their rights—information they would learn if these contracts were established through the courts. 

When reached for comment by The Appeal, the Riverside County Probation Department said they could not discuss the allegations until they had been served with the lawsuit.

YAT can have disastrous consequences by setting youth up for future involvement with the criminal justice system, the complaint argues. Probation officers allegedly use the program to create profiles of participants by accessing school records, reading counseling reports, and compiling extensive family histories—information they can use against participants who encounter the juvenile justice system in the future.

In a YAT presentation recounted in the book Psyche-Soul-ology: An Inspirational Approach to Appreciating and Understanding Troubled Kids, Debbie Waddell, a former senior probation officer, was quoted as saying that YAT is used 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 Deputy District Attorney Anthony Villalobos, who participated in the same presentation, also explained, “We can do all kinds of surveillance, including wire taps on phones, without having to get permission from a judge.”

If people end up in court for a first time, low-level criminal offense down the line and they have already completed YAT, they are no longer eligible for diversion. If they started but did not complete YAT, the failure can be considered during the criminal sentencing process.   

The YAT kids “feel like they have broken a law and that this is a punishment,” said Corey Jackson, the CEO of Sigma Beta Xi, a mentorship organization and plaintiff in the lawsuit. The organization works with many of the youth who encounter the probation program, so Jackson has seen its impact firsthand. One mentee under a YAT contract attended a young man’s leadership conference in nearby Los Angeles and received a penalty because the outing wasn’t pre-approved by a probation officer, Jackson recounted. “It’s being sold to these school districts as a mentoring program. There is nothing in the program that has anything to do with mentoring, based upon best practices and national standards,” he said.  

In addition to reading contracts from years past, the ACLU attorneys have met with parents picking up their children from probation meetings and consistently heard that impacted families feel voiceless. But it is hard to fight a system when the charges aren’t clear and there isn’t a lawyer to assist them. “If you don’t know how you’ve been wronged, how can you raise that issue?” Comstock said.

The plaintiffs are asking for the court to prohibit the enforcement of Section 601(b), the signing of  contracts through coercion and without explaining charges against the children or their legal rights, searches of students’ homes and personal property, use of records compiled against a student under probation in the future, and operating in a way that specifically targets Black and Latinx youth.   

“Kicking an orange doesn’t mean you’re going to jail or going to rob somebody. Playing ‘the race card’ doesn’t mean you’re going to break some type of laws,” Jackson said. “We can no longer accept that in Riverside County.”