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July 2, 2018

RIVERSIDE — The Youth Accountability Team (YAT) program was created in 2001 in Riverside County to target at-risk youths for intervention. But YAT treats children who have not been convicted of crimes like hardened criminals with surprise searches, unannounced home visitations, strict restrictions on who participants can speak to, curfews, and interrogations into intimate details of their lives. It's a program far more likely to be applied to youths of color.

YAT is not just oppressive, it's unconstitutional. 

On Sunday, a class action lawsuit was filed against Riverside County, which oversees the YAT program and funnels millions of taxpayer dollars into it, by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; ACLU SoCal; ACLU NorCal; ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties; the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP; and the National Center for Youth Law.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside on behalf of three students and the non-profit mentoring organization Sigma Beta Xi that works with local youths of color. It asks that the YAT program be forced to adhere to the U.S. Constitution's due process clause and California state Constitution provisions.

"The county should be providing equity and excellence in education, eliminating barriers to success. Instead it's targeting, luring, and funneling children — especially children of color — into a criminal system," said Sylvia Torres-Guillén, the ACLU of California's Director of Education Equity. "These are students, not criminals."

It can take only a phone call from a school official or other authority figure to turn a student over to the repressive YAT program for offenses as slight as having a poor academic record, tardiness, or talking back to teachers. Without judicial oversight, advice from an attorney, or a full disclosure of the details of the YAT program, students and their families are coerced into signing on to the regimen, sometimes in the presence of armed officers.

"While the county touts YAT as a persion program, it turns out to be harsher, in many cases, than juvenile probation," said Michael Harris, senior director of juvenile justice at the National Center for Youth Law. "That's not appropriate for students simply misbehaving at school."

And although the YAT program is supposed to be, at least to a great extent, about improving academic performance, participants are at times hauled out of classes for searches or questioning. It can cause them to miss entire classes or even key tests.

As heavy handed as YAT is, behavior and school experts say that its police state-like approach is not effective. The Sigma Beta Xi organization takes an entirely different approach with at-risk youths. Its mission is not aimed at controlling participants, but instead mentoring them with the aim of building a perse group of young professional leaders.

Instead of using intimidation, they work to instill pride and a sense of community.

"The research says that effective intervention programs should be inpidually tailored and focus on providing positive supports to develop our young people," said Corey Jackson, chief executive of Sigma Beta Xi. "Interventions focused on punishment and coercion do harm that's difficult to reverse."

The YAT program's treatment of children cannot be allowed to continue. The Constitution is not just for adults.

"Sheppard Mullin is proud to work alongside the ACLU and the National Center for Youth Law to protect and vindicate the constitutional rights of Riverside County youth who have been negatively affected by the YAT program," said Andrea Feathers, an attorney with the firm.

Read the lawsuit here: