LAUSD School Discipline Reform School to Prison Pipeline Youth Youth Justice Reimagined

Op-Ed: Finally, an Opportunity to Humanize, Not Criminalize, LA’s Students

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By: Maxwell Cadena, Yvonne Tinajero, George Lucas

The slogan of the Los Angeles School Police Department is “Serving Our Future Today.” Unfortunately, too often, rather than serving local students’ futures, LASPD officers instead serve kids up to the youth justice system.

In June 2020, the LA Unified School District board voted to cut $25 million from the $70 million school police budget in response to months of community organizing, protests, and advocacy. Seven months later, on February 16, 2021, the board finally agreed on how to reallocate that $25 million.

The plan decreases the LASPD staff by a third and eliminates some uniformed officers on school campuses. Additionally, pepper spray will no longer be used on students. The $25 million, along with an additional $11.5 million from the LAUSD budget, will be invested in supporting students through the hiring of more school social workers, using “climate coaches” instead of police, and implementing a holistic Black Student Achievement Plan.

The Black Student Achievement Plan will provide funds annually to 53 schools that have a high number of Black students in need of substantial academic and cultural support. The plan is meant to better address their needs along the lines of instruction, curriculum, and general well-being.

The new School Climate Coaches will essentially act as advocates for students on campus. The hope is that the coaches will be representative of the schools’ local communities and therefore effective at helping students have their voices heard. They will also work to build relationships with and between students, provide de-escalation strategies to support conflict resolution, and address implicit bias and racism.

Even after this latest move to decrease campus policing, the LASPD is still the largest independent school police department in the United States. A study found that 1 in 4 of the arrests they made between 2014 and 2017 involved children in elementary and middle school. The same study showed that 76% of LASPD involvement was directed at boys of color.

The LASPD’s history of criminalizing student behavior has been found to decrease school attendance and academic achievement. The trauma and stress of the interactions can cause lasting harm throughout the lives of the students. While cutting school police funding is an important first step toward reducing harm, the reallocation of those funds must be implemented effectively.

As graduate students attending the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, we are being equipped with a wide variety of interventions aimed at improving child and family outcomes. These strategies are focused on prevention and wellness. They come from a body of research that has proven to help raise GPAs, as well as reduce what has typically been treated as “risky” or “delinquent” behavior. The effectiveness of these interventions is also vastly improved by the inclusion of cultural sensitivity.

Thus, cultural sensitivity should be central to the implementation of the Black Achievement Plan. Schools should be fostering student achievement by celebrating their cultural experiences. If we want to honor the diversity of our students the right way, it helps to listen to the concerns, needs, and perspectives of the students themselves.

Kamarie Brown, the student representative on the LA School Board, summed it up perfectly in her advocacy for the budget decision:

“We need an education that will not only help us succeed in spite of the tough social and economic conditions we face, but also one that will equip us to eliminate those conditions altogether.”

Hiring more school social workers and utilizing climate coaches can help make Kamarie’s vision a reality. It is unclear, however, what training the climate coaches will have and what their job will entail. Furthermore, although the Black Student Achievement Plan sounds great on paper, the descriptions available are still rather vague as to the actual implementation. We need to understand more about how exactly the plan might be accomplished and how its outcomes will be measured.

Here are a few strategies we suggest:

“EMBRace” is one example of a culturally specific intervention. The name stands for “Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race.” It consists of five sessions of family-based interventions that use socialization methods to manage and build coping strategies. EMBRace has been shown to improve academic outcomes along with parent and child relationships and reduce racial stress and trauma.

Another proven strategy, Multidimensional Family Therapy, is backed by 25 years of research involving ethnically and culturally diverse populations around the United States. “MDFT” focuses on helping young people foster healthy relationships and better understand how changing circumstances influence their lives. School life is one of the major areas of attention. Research indicates that this practice has improved academic performance, led to fewer placements on probation, and reduced depression and anxiety symptoms for children and parents of color. The program is typically completed in a 3-4 month period with 1-2 sessions per week.

Social workers and climate coaches should also track long-term student empowerment, using surveys that are student-centered and culturally considerate. It is unclear how well LA schools are meeting the psychological needs of the student body, but there is always room for improvement. Schools should partner more closely with social workers and the groups that created the Black Student Achievement Plan to develop specific surveys for LA youth.

LAUSD administrators should be more deliberate about student well-being throughout their educational journeys. Counselors, climate coaches, and teachers alike stand to benefit from hearing how they contribute to the health of the school environment. More empowered students have higher grades and test scores, come to school more often, and stay out of trouble.

School administrators and faculty must also make the implementation process as transparent as possible. Publishing regular progress updates, meeting with families and students, and continued collaboration with the advocacy groups throughout is critical to success.

These are just a few ways the LAUSD can use this window of opportunity to change its culture for the better. Advocacy has opened that window, and while we have reached an important milestone, it is not the finish line. Now it’s time to focus on the actual implementation. Here’s how we can take this victory and run with it:

We can start by following the money. Right now, unrestricted LA County funding from voter-approved Measure J is being put toward community support investments ranging from youth development to job training, housing projects, and alternatives to incarceration.

The county’s Chief Executive Office is taking recommendations for how to use that funding. Residents can engage in that process to share priorities and highlight innovative ideas by attending bi-monthly virtual community forums on Measure J  proposals. The next meetings are on March 18, April 1, and April 15. The meetings are hosted by Re-Imagine LA, a grassroots organization that along with groups like People’s City Council, and BLM LA, advocate for the redefining of what public safety and community health can and should look like in LA.

Residents must also make sure the school board is working for the students and implementing the community’s proposals. Future meetings are listed on their event calendar. Additionally, the members are elected from each district every 5 years. Small elections like those can make a big difference in the healthy development of our youth.

Let’s fight on to give LAUSD students more opportunities and confidence to thrive, instead of labeling them as criminals. Doesn’t that sound more like “Serving Our Future Today”?


Maxwell Cadena, Yvonne Tinajero, George Lucas are graduate students at the USC Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.