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LAUSD Student Organizers Say Former School Police Should Not Serve in New Student Advocate Role

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

As the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education is working out the finer details of the new Black Student Achievement Plan, LA’s student organizers are watching the board closely to ensure that district leaders honor the objectives of the BSAP, which is funded largely by money diverted from the school police budget, and implement the new plan in a way that benefits students.

Over the last week, students have renewed calls to the school board to keep police off school campuses, citing concerns about language that has been quietly slipped into BSAP-related proposals. A couple of sentences in the proposals indicated to students that school administrators might take soon-to-be-laid-off School Safety Officers (SSOs) — who are now worried about finding new jobs — and simply shuffle them into a new, soon-to-be-created student advocate role called a “school climate coach.”

The move, LAUSD youth leaders told the board this week, runs counter to the spirit of the Black Student Achievement Plan and to all the work it took to remove police officers from campuses and replace them with supportive systems prioritizing care over punishment.

Uniformed enforcement officers, whether sworn or civilian — as in the case of the SSOs — make Black students feel unsafe, Sarah Djato, a senior at Dorsey High School and organizer with #StudentsDeserve, told WitnessLA.

“We do not care if they are in a different uniform or [have] a different name,” said another LAUSD senior and #StudentsDeserve organizer, Kahlila Williams.

“We do not want them on our campuses. We want new people. We want a whole new system,” Williams told the school board last Wednesday. “It’s not about reform anymore. It’s about abolition.”

How We Got to the Point of System-Overhaul

In June 2020, the LAUSD board voted to cut $25 million from the $70 million budget for the nation’s largest school police department. The move came in response to calls from dozens of community groups to divest from law enforcement and to eliminate the ways in which kids in the district’s 900 schools are pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

The diversion of funds from the LA School Police Department (LASPD) means the elimination of 133 positions: includes 70 gun-carrying sworn officers, 62 non-sworn “School Safety Officers,” and one support staff member, all of which adds up to around one-third of the department’s total force.

Along with the personnel cuts, there are other changes, such as boosts in support for students, and a ban on officers using pepper spray on youth, all demands brought by a coalition of Black students and community groups, including LA #StudentsDeserve and Black Lives Matter-LA.

The board voted on February 16, 2021, to adopt its plan after a 7-month review of the LAUSD’s school environments, with a focus on safety and student well-being. The review included conversations with local organizations and analyses of successful models implemented in other large school districts.

The $25 million cut from the LASPD budget, plus an additional $11.5 million from the LAUSD’s general fund, will be put toward implementing a Black Student Achievement Plan. Most of the money will go toward hiring the aforementioned “school climate coaches,” as well as other counselors and support staff members.

The school district intends to partner with community groups to boost supports and services in 53 LAUSD schools selected based on a set of indicators, including the rate at which kids are suspended or referred to probation, average Math and English proficiency scores, chronic absenteeism rates, and students’ answers to school experience surveys.

The Black Student Achievement Plan’s focus will be on making sure that school instruction and materials are culturally responsive to Black students, on closing gaps in literacy and math skills, and on reducing racial disparities in school discipline, in part, by better meeting kids’ “academic and social-emotional needs.”

These goals have been made all the more urgent by a pandemic that has left many students struggling to keep up academically.

(Additionally, on April 21, amid challenges that include the phased school reopening and preparation for the BSAP, the LAUSD’s superintendent, Austin Beutner, announced that he would resign at the end of June when his current contract expires. Beutner has served in his role for three years, steering the district through the pandemic, and other challenges, during his final year and a half.)

A recent UCLA study dug into how LA County’s school districts, including the LAUSD, are failing Black students in myriad ways, many of which have worsened during the pandemic.

LA-Area Schools Not Meeting Black Students’ Needs, Report Says

The 60-page report, released last week by the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, offers an in-depth view of Black students’ challenges and experiences in LA County’s schools and communities.

It also features recommendations for school leaders, and local, state, and federal policymakers, to prioritize the academic needs and well-being of Black students and their families and communities. Many of the recommendations align with the changes that the BSAP will bring to schools with the most need.

In their report, UCLA researchers looked at data from 14 LA County school districts — LAUSD among them — each serving 800 Black students or more.

Two-thirds of LA County’s black students attend schools in the 14 districts examined in the study. (Interestingly, the researchers noted, if all of LA County’s 109,000 Black students attended school in a single district, it would be the third-largest district in California, and the 26th largest in the nation.)

The report pointed out prominent differences in health and neighborhood environmental conditions experienced by Black and white LAUSD families.  “Blacks reside in census tracts with the worst levels of groundwater pollution, while Whites … generally reside in areas with among the lowest levels of groundwater threats,” wrote the researchers

Across all the districts,  the UCLA report found black students in LA County are twice as likely to experience homelessness as their non-Black peers. And researchers noted wide gaps in wealth between Black and White students in 10 out of the 14 districts, including LAUSD.

The LAUSD had the third-highest rate of chronic absenteeism among Black students, at 29 percent. The report also highlighted serious disparities in school discipline and policing, and noted that school police departments were a relatively new institution.

In 1970, there were fewer than 100 police stationed on school campuses nationwide. By 2020, the LASPD, the nation’s largest school police department, had more than 350 sworn officers, approximately 100 non-sworn School Safety Officers, plus a list of administrative positions.

According to a separate 2018 report called “Get Out: Black Male Suspensions in California Public Schools,” from UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods Project and two researchers from San Diego State University, police presence on campus has meant Black students have been disproportionately punished and criminalized.

Between 2014 and 2017, the LASPD made 3,389 arrests of students, issued 2,724 citations, and participated in 1,282 diversions. Black kids made up 24 percent of the total arrests, citations, and diversions, despite representing less than nine percent of the district’s student population.

While, for more than a decade, there has been a movement in California and across the nation to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests for normal kid behavior and low-level infractions, there is still much work to be done to address the harm done to Black children and other students of color, according to researchers and advocates.

Thus, the recent language added to BSAP implementation plans, singling out laid-off School Safety Officers as eligible to apply for the new “school climate coach” position was seen as problematic by advocates, and sent students back before the school board last week, where they called for, all “new people” without law enforcement backgrounds to serve in student support roles.

The Issue of Rehiring SSOs as Climate Coaches

School Resource Officers (SROs) are sworn, armed members of the LA School Police Department.

Yet, as mentioned earlier, the LASPD also has a second, non-sworn, civilian group of School Safety Officers (SSOs). According to Londell Burris, a School Safety Officer who says he has worked for the district for more than 20 years, SSOs are “uniformed personnel” who are “unarmed and have no police powers.”

Now the LAUSD has plans to lay off 62 SSOs like Burris, in addition to the 70 sworn SROs.

Burris said this is a bad idea.

“The Department and the LAUSD Board have seen in their infinite wisdom to also remove us from the campuses and fire the majority of us to boot,” he told WLA.

SROs are full-on police officers certified by the national Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST),  who “likely have or will lateral to another law enforcement agency,” Burris said. The future is less certain for the SSOs who will be laid off. That’s why they have asked to be able to apply for the soon-to-be-created School Climate Coach position, according to Burris.

The SSOs’ concerns reportedly led to the inclusion of special language in hiring plans for the school climate advocate positions. The proposed hiring plan would restrict applications so that the first hires “can be from low-income groups and those residing in specific geographic areas.” But it also specifically said that SSOs were eligible to apply.

After hearing from concerned students and community members, LAUSD Board Member Mónica García asked Personnel Director Karla Gould if there was “a possibility to exclude anyone from applying for any job in the district?”

“We cannot exclude anyone from consideration for a position if they meet the qualifications,” said Gould.

But singling out SSOs, specifically, as eligible sends a concerning message to Black students and communities regarding “what we’re looking for,” García said.

In the hiring process, when the district says it’s looking for hires from impacted communities, “there’s discretion,” said García. “An applicant would have to meet those requirements.”

“What I really want to know,” she added, is whether this is “a shuffling of people to just give everybody a job? Is that what we’re doing with this effort?”

It won’t be a reshuffling, both Gould and Local District Superintendent Roberto Martinez said, and individual schools will have the authority to determine who meets the job criteria. But SSOs don’t carry guns, Martinez added. “It’s a completely different position.” Plus, he said, the climate coach training will hopefully be “what changes dynamics on the campus.”

The board and the public have “this mindset that because [SSOs] are uniformed, they pose a problem to this new position,” said Burris. SSOs, he said, “are unarmed and wear a duty belt with pepper spray and handcuffs. They are at LAUSD sites where there is a need for security and property protection.”

Moreover, Burris said, he and fellow SSOs “do realize that with a different job title there will be a different job description, and training.”

“You can never forget the experience of your previous job(s),” he said, “but going forward with the job you’ve applied for or excepted, that must be your focus. The Board seems to think that is impossible.”

“SSOs are only seeking to stay employed,” he added.

But, for #StudentsDeserve youth, the bottom line is simple:  folks who have previously worked in an enforcement role on campuses, whether they carried guns or not, do not have the right background to serve in a role focused on caring for, counseling, and building trust with students.

Last week, Dorsey senior Kahlila Williams told the board members that allowing any uniformed officers to work in the new student support role was counter to the spirit of the Black Student Achievement Plan, and the work students and others have done to remove police from campuses and replace them with counselors and other trauma-informed support systems.

“For about a year now, Black students have been expressing their concerns of how they’ve been targeted and criminalized by school police,” Williams said. “We have shared these experiences [with the school board members] time and time again. Yet, you guys keep undermining us.”

Students, the teen said, need “a whole new system.” After years of trying to reform the police, she said, alternatives to police and the criminalization of students are long overdue. It’s time for school climate coaches and more resources for students of color and schools, Williams said.

When members of other communities ask her, “Why prioritize Black students over other kids?” Sarah Djato says, because “our Black students need the most help as of right now.”

Getting more counselors in schools will “benefit every single student on campus,” Djato said. The “process of defunding is a reinvestment into the community and it’s going to benefit all students in the long run.”

Ultimately, the school board agreed to strike the sentence giving the appearance of prioritizing SSOs for the position of school climate coach.

It’s “exhausting” work trying to get people in power to listen and take action to provide LA’s Black students the resources they need to thrive in school, Williams said. Students said they have been calling in and waiting hours to address the board during virtual meetings. In this particular instance, Williams said she waited five hours to speak to the board at 9:00 p.m. on a school night.

They’ll keep returning to fight for reinvestment in students, though, Williams, Djato, and others have said.

“We’re not done with the organizing that we’re doing,” Djato told WLA. We’re coming back for that $50 million that’s left in the police budget.”

Image by Chris Yarzab, Flickr.