Austin got rid of its youth curfew ordinance last year out of concern that it was funneling teens into the criminal justice system.
But when it came time for the San Antonio City Council to take a look at its curfew this past spring, it took a different route: rather than criminalizing youth for staying out late, it’s attempting to address why youth are staying out late in the first place.
At Albert Benavides Park near the start of the school year, school was far from 15-year-old Dominic’s mind. He said he dropped out a year ago after getting kicked out for fighting.
“I just don’t like it,” he said. “Too much problems at school.”
Asked whether he’d like to go back to school, he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth in disbelief.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s boring.”
San Antonio has one of the highest rates of disconnected youth in the country — worse than Dallas or Houston. And Dominic is on the path to being among the more than 30,000 youths between the age of 16 and 24 in San Antonio who aren’t working or in school.
Out of Work, Out of School
A few years back, San Antonio Municipal Court Judge John Bull began noticing a pattern: Young men and women who showed up on their radar — in trouble or on the verge of it — without a place to go.
“I have an 18-year-old show up in court who doesn’t have a driver’s license, doesn’t have insurance, and then you start to inquire and find out they dropped out of school and they’re not working,” Bull said.
It’s a pattern other city departments were noticing too: parks, libraries, police, and health. Bull and Rebecca Flores, the city’s education program administrator, began working with other city departments to come up with a plan.
“We had put $4.4 million in at-risk programming, so we would give grants (every other year) to various non-profits to help us prevent dropouts,” said Flores. “And what Judge Bull kept telling me was ‘all of those dollars that you keep sending to those nonprofits — they are not touching the kids who come into my courts.’ And we were hearing the same thing with SAPD.”
Address Root Causes
When San Antonio’s youth curfew ordinance came up for review, Flores and other city staffers suggested using it as a way to connect with San Antonio’s 30,000 disconnected teens and young adults.
At the same time, community activists began calling on City Council to address their concerns with the curfew, which made it illegal for children between the ages of 10 and 16 to be out alone between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“What we realized over the years was that this ordinance exposed San Antonio’s youth to unnecessary law enforcement,” said Akeem Brown, chair of My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio. “We started to see, contrary to what experts knew then, this negative effect, especially or disproportionately on boys and men of color.”
Brown sent an open letter to City Council asking it to address the reasons young people were out instead of punishing them for it.
“Most of these young people, truly, were leaving homes or leaving school because they didn’t feel safe there,” Brown said. “We wanted to make sure that the policies on the backend would better assist young people and families in solving the issue.”
Following the suggestions of activists and staff, the City Council decriminalized the curfew at the end of May but the council didn’t get rid of it entirely.
“We’re couching it as criminalizing kids and all that stuff, and I saw it more as you have to have it to protect kids,” Bull said. “Not citing them, not fining them, but trying to find out why a 14-year-old is out at 2 a.m. and you can’t find the parent.”
It’s still a violation of city ordinance for children between the ages of 10 and 16 to be out alone at night or during school hours. But instead of being charged with a misdemeanor, police now have the option to take them to a case manager.
Bull said the redefined curfew gives officers a way to get kids off the street without punishing them.
The city budget approved Thursday includes nearly $500,000 for a 24-hour re-engagement center staffed with case managers and social workers. Flores said Goodwill, one of the nonprofits contracted to operate the center, has pledged to match city funding dollar for dollar. Communities in Schools, which specializes in counseling and dropout prevention, earned the city’s other contract.
The center is slated to open in January at the Frank Garrett Community Center on San Antonio’s West Side.
“I’m a former educator, so my heart is always with the kids. And I think many of them, they just need a second chance,” Flores said. “They fell into hard times. They made a poor life decision. They had to drop out of school. Now they can’t find a job. Well, we’re going to be that second chance.”
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille