Out of Control Policy Blog

California Court Keeps Schoolyard Scuffles Out of Juvenile Justice System

According to a California State Court of Appeals, a schoolyard scuffle cannot land a teenager in court. This decision marks an important diversion away from the school-to-prison pipeline and toward school-centered disciplinary policy. The June 26th ruling ends now 17-year old Fernando C.’s appeal after being declared a ward of the juvenile court under California’s Welfare and Institutions Code.

The trouble started with a simple fight back in 2012 when 15-year old Fernando C. and another classmate at Ukiah High School exchanged a few punches near the campus’ football field. Neither student sustained any injuries. Nevertheless, law enforcement referred Fernando to the Mendocino County district attorney, who then stuck him with a misdemeanor charge of fighting on school grounds under California Penal Code section 415. A juvenile court judge found Fernando guilty of fighting in a public place, which is a lesser-included offense under California Penal Code section 415.5 and he was subsequently placed on probation.

Upon appeal, the First Appellate District Court of California reversed the lower juvenile court’s decision, concluding that a fight between students on school grounds does not constitute a fight within a public place under the current penal code. Ultimately, the law precludes registered students from being subjected to this charge.

Indeed, when California legislators passed a law in 1980 that criminalized fighting on school grounds, they exempted students. This exemption, according to the First Appellate District Court of Appeal opinion, “signals a legislative intent that student fights on school grounds should be the subject of discipline by school authorities rather than prosecution under the juvenile justice system.”

Despite this legislative intent, students across California are regularly ticketed by school police and required to appear before a juvenile court judge for minor infractions committed on school grounds. Between 2009 and 2011, the Los Angeles School Police Department handed out an average of 11,000 tickets to students per year – more than any other district in the country. Many of these tickets went to students between 12 and 14 years old, and were for offenses such as disturbing the peace, tardiness, or having graffiti “tools,” such as a Sharpie marker.

If policy makers and school administrators have an interest in promoting positive educational and behavioral outcomes, it is crucial to do everything possible to keep students in school instead of funneling them into the criminal justice system for petty mistakes.

This court’s decision to keep discipline for schoolyard scuffles out of the criminal justice system is certainly laudable. Hopefully this ruling brings to light unnecessarily harsh disciplinary policies, and will prompt school administrators across the state to undertake reform. 

Matt Hartill is Research Intern


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