Parents, students, teachers, researchers, advocates, and two Los Angeles Unified School Board members gathered last Tuesday, January 31, on the steps of Mann UCLA Community School in South LA, for the release of a 52-page report outlining the ways in which kids are criminalized at school, and how the school district can and should replace campus police with counselors and services for students.
The report was produced by The Police Free LAUSD Coalition, a group of 15 organizations in close partnership with the community, including the ACLU of Southern California, Black Lives Matter, LA, Community Coalition, UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods project, Students Deserve, and the local teacher’s union, United Teachers Los Angeles.
At the Tuesday event, and in the report, the coalition discussed the urgency of reducing students’ contact with law enforcement as part of continued efforts to break down the school-to-prison pipeline.
Police and punishment
Research shows that school police presence leads to the overcriminalization of kids—especially students of color, who make up a majority of the nation’s public school students, and those with disabilities. Having even one officer at school makes it more likely that students will become ensnared in the justice system.
“This is because when a police officer is present in school, students are more likely to be referred to law enforcement for a variety of student behaviors,” the report points out. “In other words, offenses that do not require a referral to law enforcement often get referred to law enforcement simply because police officers are present.”
Honey Bizarro, a youth leader with Communities for a Better Environment, one of the groups in the coalition, described witnessing the criminalization of students when she was an LAUSD student.
“On several occasions, I saw my peers targeted with verbal and physical abuse from school police enforcing zero tolerance policies,” Bizarro said. “I have seen students put in handcuffs for trivial behavior, such as carrying a permanent marker or having a bad attitude.”
Learning, she said, “was constantly interrupted by police presence on campus.” And police focus much of their attention and punishment on Black and brown students.
In LAUSD schools, Black students make up just 8 percent of the population, but account for 25 percent of arrests, citations, and diversions.
In a February 2022 op-ed in Education Week, Evan Douglas, a man with unique experience of having been a teacher and then a cop, urged school districts to remove police presence from schools. “Let’s save our children from the pepper spray, the body slams, and the tasers.”
The coalition also stressed that there is no research showing that school police actually make campuses safer.
The report lays out the racist history of school police (launched to patrol newly integrated schools in Los Angeles in 1948), and the rise of the “super-predator” myth that caused policing of youth to skyrocket in the 1990s, and led to “zero tolerance” school discipline and punishment for dozens of normal kid behaviors, which were as labeled “willful defiance.”
The coalition also offers a timeline of community-led resistance, culminating in a successful effort to cut the $70 million Los Angeles School Police (LASPD) budget by $25 million in 2021. That $25 million was then reinvested in a Black Student Achievement Plan.
Now, the school board must finish the job, however, according to the coalition: the LASPD must go. In its absence school officials must implement systems that better care for students and their families and communities, and expand programs that are already working but need more funding.
Recommendations built through community input
The coalition built the report and its recommendations in close collaboration with the community through a process called “participatory action research,” according to Dr. David Turner, an Assistant Professor of Black Life and Racial Justice at UCLA, and one of the report’s 15 authors.
In this way, the community “works together to define a problem and then we collectively research and write about the problem,” said Turner.
The coalition brought more than 200 LAUSD parents, students, alumni, teachers, counselors, community organizers, and researchers together into 20 focus groups to discuss school safety.
From the participants’ comments, concerns, and ideas during these sessions, specific themes emerged. Stakeholders wanted the district and school leaders to partner with and share decision-making power with students, families, teachers and the local community. Participants also wanted schools to provide kids with a holistic and culturally-attuned environment for learning and to focus on the “whole” student, rather than academic achievement alone.
“So many people said that they feel left out of the decision making for their schools,” Dr. Turner said. “How much more engaged would our schools be in the community schools model where parents and teachers and community members and other folks are helping to drive school decisions or helping to make school decisions?”
Adopting this model, he said, would “fundamentally change the game.”
So would focusing on the needs of the “whole” student, said Turner. “It’s one thing for students to go to class, do well in class, and get good test scores,” Turner said. It’s an entirely different thing to take care of the student as a person. “When you take care of the person that is that child, they show up in school very differently than they would have otherwise.”
LA’s growing number of community schools already offer a better model, where families and the community work collaboratively with school administrators to make decisions, and students have more robust and even holistic support, thanks to the Black Student Achievement Plan.
The report also points out examples of community-led safety initiatives, including the Dads on Duty group in Shreveport, Louisiana, created in response to increased fighting among students returning to schools after pandemic closures.
“Instead of simply relying on police to continue to suppress student behavioral issues, a parent named Michael Lafitte gathered over three dozen other parents in the school to begin supporting the students by checking on their well-being, and managing conflict,” according to the report. “Arrests since the program’s launch have stopped, and student fighting reached pre-pandemic lows as the Dads on Duty initiative helped to shift school culture, without police.”
And fighting, experts noted, is normal teenager behavior.
“There will be conflict, right? These are students, these are kids,” said Ashleigh Washington, an attorney at Collective for Liberatory Lawyering. “There will be developmental needs, there will be mental health needs. Our students and families deserve support. Students should be guided through mistakes and not punished or removed from community.”
There are examples of various programs, which demonstrate that mentorship and care are better ways to help teens learn and grow from mistakes than punishment and exclusion.
Building Lifelong Opportunities and Options for Men (BLOOM), for example, focuses its efforts on system-impacted youth to help them finish high school and transition to college or a career. “Of the 788 youth who participated in the program since 2012, 92.7% of youth who were probation involved did not re-offend, suspensions dropped from 70% to 18%,” and those who completed the program had better academic achievement than the district average, the report said.
Models like this are worthy of expansion and replication, according to the coalition—mainly because they are methods that have already been demonstrated to work.
“These are things that people are doing in real life today that can be invested in, things that our district — right now, today — can invest in,” Dr. Turner said at the press conference. “So we don’t want to hear, ‘Oh, well, they don’t exist.’ We don’t want to hear, ‘There’s no capacity for it.’”
All these community-led efforts need is investment, said Turner. “If we can spend $70 million to incarcerate and harm our children, I guarantee you, we can take that same money to support our children.”
That’s not the only money Los Angeles spends to punish kids, however.
LA County spends nearly $400 million each year incarcerating approximately 400 kids at any given time.
That money, and much more should be spent on strengthening the Black Student Achievement Plan, funding more community schools, building out restorative practices, and caring for more than just the academic needs of children, according to the coalition.
The report lays out specific budget recommendations for achieving school environments that students deserve, including spending approximately $125 million to hire nurses, psychiatrists, counselors, restorative justice facilitators, and to establish peer counseling programs for youth. Another $20 million would ensure that every school has a climate coach. The climate coach role was created as part of the Black Student Achievement Plan to replace school police on campus and help with conflict resolution, as well as building positive relationships with kids and supporting them, while eliminating racial bias in school discipline.
Right now, only secondary schools have climate coaches.
Two LA Unified School Board of Education members are among those who spoke at the press conference, sharing their support of the report and efforts to decriminalize students and improve school climates.
“We know our students need nurturing, not policing,” Board Member Tanya Ortiz-Franklin told those present at the Tuesday gathering, adding that she was committed to making sure that the rest of the board members hear the community’s demands and “make a decision on this year’s budget, on this year’s policies that our kids deserve and require of us.”
Dr. Rocío Rívas, who was sworn in on December 3, 2022, to represent Board District 2, said she too was committed to “tearing down racist structures,” funding the Black Student Achievement Program, “strengthening college-ready programs and expanding career-ready pathways, expanding community schools in every neighborhood, with partnerships that transform struggling schools and provide wraparound services for our children and families.”
The coalition, leaders said, would hold the board accountable.
“We’ll be showing up at the school board on Tuesday to demand that they implement the recommendations in our report, and that they continue to work with us to fully implement BSAP and reimagine school safety for all of our LAUSD students,” said Joseph Williams, Director of Students Deserve.