As the Los Angeles County Probation Department dismantles a controversial shadow probation program in schools, some county education officials worry that they will be left with fewer resources to work with young people who misbehave at school.
The county is now looking at importing Becoming A Man, an intervention model developed in Chicago that targets high school boys for small-group sessions and comes with impressive credentials. Some advocates say they would prefer a local replacement.
Over the past 10 years, the county has spent about $11.6 million a year in state delinquency prevention funds to place probation officers in schools to provide supervision and services to both youth who are already on probation and those who have gotten in trouble at school, but who have not been arrested.
The latter group are placed on what’s called voluntary probation and classified as WIC 236 youth, named for the state statute that allows probation departments to work with youth who have yet to be adjudicated in court. Under the terms of the program, educators, parents or other concerned advocates can refer a youth to the probation officers to receive services on a voluntary basis, usually for issues like grades or school attendance.
These youth are supposed to check in with officers at schools, along with youth who are already overseen by a probation as part of their court-ordered supervision.
A survey in 2016 found that many probation officers are largely working to provide students with tutoring and other academic support. Dubbed “pre-probation” at some schools, the program has come under fire in recent years even as the county’s juvenile justice system has shrunk.
From a 2017 report on WIC 236 youth authored by several Los Angeles juvenile justice advocates:
“WIC 236 supervision has neither minimized system contact nor expanded community-based programs and alternatives. Quite the opposite, it represents an overall increase in probation’s contact with youth.”
As arrests of juveniles in L.A. County have plummeted over the past decade, fewer youngsters are ending up under probation supervision. But in recent years, the number of youth on voluntary probation has claimed an increasing share of the probation caseload, tripling the number of youth placed in juvenile halls and camps.
In the fiscal year 2012-2013, WIC 236 youth comprised about 32 percent of youth served by school-based probation officers, according to a recent evaluation. Three years later, they figured in about 58 percent of all cases, outnumbering the youth actually on probation at schools.
Earlier this year, Deputy Probation Chief Sheila Mitchell decided to wind down the voluntary probation program, acting on the recommendations of a series of reports by Resource Development Associates, an outside evaluation firm contracted by the Probation Department.
The Probation Department should stop providing “probation services to at-risk youth currently serviced via WIC §236 and not actively supervis[e] any juvenile or adult clients assessed as low risk,” one of the reports read.
Mitchell’s decision to scuttle voluntary probation comes in response to concerns that youth who hadn’t committed an offense could be shepherded deeper into the justice system by being included on the caseloads of probation officers alongside other offenders.
“We are part of the justice system, and when you are involving folks — this is what the evidence suggests — that are part of the justice system with kids that are not part of the justice system, that’s net widening,” Mitchell recently said at a meeting of the county’s Probation Commission.
There were also other concerns about how the program operated. Probation Commissioner Azael (Sal) Martinez-Sonoqui visited several program sites last year and found low numbers of young people served and few probation officers following up with the parents of children in the program.
“The kids are not there, the probation officers are not there,” Martinez said. “They come in late, they leave early to fight traffic. They are not there when incidents are happening. Once the kids find out that it’s voluntary, they leave, too.”
In April, Mitchell ended the voluntary probation program in 35 middle schools. By the end of this month, it will be phased out of 103 high schools and continuation schools in the county. Instead, responsibility to work with young people who are not involved with the justice system will shift to the county’s new Office of Youth Diversion and Development (YDD), a byproduct of the county’s new focus on diversion.
This doesn’t mean that school-based supervision will end. Mitchell said that the department will now focus more resources at schools on youth who are already on probation.
“We really want our staff to focus on those young people that are on probation,” Mitchell said. “There are fewer kids on probation, but the complexity of their needs are so much greater.”
But the Probation Department’s retreat from many schools has caused consternation among probation officers and some school administrators.
“The schools will be losing a very valuable resource,” said Randy Herbon, a probation commissioner who previously worked in schools as a probation officer. “I think in light of recent school shootings and things like that, probation officers have got their ears to the ground when they’re in the schools. They hear more than the counselors and some teachers, anybody else that they go to for information.”
At a March meeting of the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council — the entity that decides how to allocate $30 million a year in delinquency prevention funds — Walnut Grove Middle School Principal Rich Nambu called the department’s voluntary probation program the most successful he has seen in his 34 years in education.
Nambu described a probation officer as having helped change the climate at the school, including helping his school lower the number of suspensions and other discipline issues.
“It’s hard for a regular classroom teacher to have enough time to spend with kids who are really at the farthest regions of the at-risk level, who have a lot of supports that they need to be successful, both socially emotionally and academically,” Nambu said.
With some schools already struggling to provide resources to low-income students, school administrators are concerned that there may be nothing to fill that gap when the next school year starts in the fall.
Last month, Nambu joined a contingent of county personnel — including the members of the YDD — who traveled to Chicago to take a look at a possible alternative.
Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance’s Becoming a Man (BAM) model has been deployed in Chicago’s public schools for more than a decade, and more recently, in Boston. The program serves nearly 4,100 students at 65 school Chicago public schools, thanks to a public-private partnership in Chicago and strong support from the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The BAM program targets at-risk male students in grades 7 to 12 and offers them weekly small-group counseling sessions once a week during school time. Employed by Youth Guidance, BAM counselors team build social and emotional learning skills that are designed to build aptitude for conflict resolution and support school engagement.
As it looks to expand outside of Chicago, BAM has a sterling resume. A 2015 study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab that used a pair of randomized-controlled trials found that youth who were part of the program had 28 to 35 percent fewer arrests and increased school engagement, including improved graduation rates of between 12 and 19 percent.
Youth Justice Coalition organizer Anthony Robles is encouraged by the dissolution of the voluntary probation program, but he said that even with fewer probation officers at largely low-income schools, the problems facing students will remain.
“That’s a really good thing that they’re taking some probation officers out of schools,” Robles said. “That’s a pipeline into the criminal justice system. They shouldn’t be there at all. When you have more school resource officers and probation than counselors, that’s ridiculous.”
California is near the bottom of rankings that measure the availability of counselors to high school students. One report found just one counselor for every 760 students in the Golden State, second worst in the country behind only Arizona.
But Robles and other activists with the Youth Justice Coalition who led the charge against the voluntary probation program in L.A. County are lukewarm about the prospect of the ballyhooed program in Chicago.
Instead, they’d like to see L.A. consider community-based organizations currently working in the county, including those that use indigenous practices and familiar faces.
The best bet to reaching young people at risk of falling into the county’s sprawling juvenile justice system, Robles said, is to find workers who can relate to young people in Los Angeles and their challenges.
“When you’re coming from the same place, the same neighborhood, the same culture, you understand the nuances of the things you’re going through maybe in a different way,” Robles said. “They understand us more deeply — they’ve probably experienced it themselves — and they’re more culturally competent.
“That’s what we really need here.”