Hundreds of students and activists rallied outside the Los Angles Unified headquarters Tuesday as the Board of Education weighed several proposals for rethinking safety on campuses, including defunding the school police department.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner said last week a district-wide budget review this summer will include a deep look at the Los Angeles School Police Department, which was founded in 1984 and employs 366 sworn officers and 95 non-sworn officers. Its budget of roughly $70 million represents less than 1% of the district’s annual budget.
More than 50 speakers addressed board members during the first two hours of the district’s Board of Education meeting Tuesday, and another 100 were still in the queue before the allotted time ran out. Most comments were submitted via phone, but a few people were socially distanced in the board room, where the only board member attending in person was Monica Garcia — other board members participated via video chat.
The majority of public comments called for the total elimination of school police or supported a Garcia proposal that would cut the school police budget by 90% by 2024. But others spoke on behalf of maintaining a police force to protect the safety of students and staff.
Teachers union leaders have backed the elimination of school police, while unions representing principals and other workers express the opposite view.
Advocates for defunding police pushed for the money to instead be allocated to increased mental health services, school nurses, teachers and other support for students. Some argued there might be fewer crimes at schools if students’ basic needs were being met.
Anna Garcia, an educator for an arts organization that works with local schools, called campus police “absurd” and said, “We need teachers. We don’t need police officers.”
Hamilton High freshman Amara Abdullah, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles Youth Vanguard, said school police make students feel uncomfortable.
“You can’t expect us to do as well in school as white students if we feel criminalized every time we walk into campus,” she said.
Activists who support total elimination of school police contend that Black youth represent less than 9% of the district’s student body but account for a quarter of all arrests, a statistic reported by the Million Dollar Hoods Project at UCLA.
A group called Students Deserve conducted a survey this year and reported that 5,500 respondents overwhelmingly believed that police were not necessary in schools. Of the Students Deserve survey respondents, 86% called for the defunding of school police, including 88% of Black students.
Those advocating for spending more money on counselors rather than police also cited a recent analysis from the Black Male Institute at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, which detailed “an exponential increase” — 906% — in the numbers of incidents related to mental health in the LAUSD, such as suicidal behavior, “that require response from individuals with expertise in mental health and social emotional challenges — namely more counselors and social workers, rather than police intervention.”
The other side of the emotionally charged argument included many parents and some teachers, as well as several school police officers and students involved in the Police Explorers program. People wearing “I heart LASPD” shirts shared personal stories of officers saving lives. They argued that officers are needed to maintain safety, especially against the threat of mass shootings.
Senior Police Officer Richard Bryant, who is a local pastor, said he’s personally risked his life for student victims of gang violence and knows other officers have done the same. He said students at his school know how much he cares about them, and they need him.
“I hear a lot of people saying they’ve been bullied by school police, and I’m saying that’s not true,” Bryant said, recalling several violent incidents to which he responded to protect students and staff. “The school police officers, as well as myself, risk their lives out there on the streets. They care about the community, and I know that for a fact.”
Henry Anderson, a parent, grandparent and school officer for 25 years, said he’s not on the job to “brutalize and terrorize” students — his voice cracking as he spoke against those claims, stating “that’s not what we do.” He said he is proud to put his uniform on every day to take care of students.
“To defund us is not the answer,” Anderson said simply.
Several officers said it’s more important now than ever for school police officers to show students that law enforcement officers can be their protectors and mentors rather than enemies.
LAUSD police — who are not part of the Los Angeles Police Department — responded to more than 100,000 emergency calls last year, including threats of mass shootings and bombs at schools, as well as robberies, sexual assaults, burglaries and other serious crimes, advocates told the board.
Following public comment, the board was set to discuss several proposals, including Garcia’s.
A proposal from board member Jackie Goldberg would eliminate non-military-style uniforms for officers and establish a Reimagining School Safety Action Planning Group to make recommendations to the board no later than July 30.
Another option, proposed by board member George McKenna, would direct the existing School Safety Task Force to convene an ad-hoc committee to send its findings to the Board of Education no later than Aug. 31. McKenna’s was the proposal supported by most of the officers and police advocates who addressed the board.
Beutner said the complex issue requires further research by his appointed nine-member task force, which includes himself as well as educators, former public defenders and prosecutors, and public policy experts. The task force is meeting twice a week and plans to deliver a progress report and initial recommendations to the Board of Education sometime in August.
Regardless of what the task force ultimately recommends, Beutner said “random wanding” searches will stop as of July 1, and he is recommending the elimination of officers’ use of pepper spray and carotid holds. Pepper spray was used four times last year by officers at LAUSD, but Beutner said choke holds have not been used for as long as he can remember.
The superintendent has emphasized that what’s most important is taking a much broader approach to addressing institutional racism in schools, going beyond that of the issue of school police.
“This moment cannot be about more words and false promises,” he said. “It has to be about real change based on logic, reason, thoughtful analysis and genuine engagement with all the stakeholders in the school community.”
Stand With Parkland, a national group of families for safe schools that formed following a 2018 shooting in Florida, issued a statement supporting police officers on school campuses in Los Angeles, focusing on how to improve them rather than eliminate them.
“Lessons from our tragedy in Parkland could not be more clear — school attacks must be stopped as quickly as possible,” the organization stated. “… When it comes to the safety of students and teachers there are specially trained officers who help bridge the gap between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”