As some school districts in California move to dismantle their police departments, the state took a stand this week: All school districts should spend less money on police and more on counseling and other services to support students.
The move, part of the state budget agreement between the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom, comes amid a nationwide movement to overhaul police systems in the wake of a Minneapolis police officer’s murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. In cities and school districts across the country, activists are urging the dismantling of police departments that they view as racist and a source of violence in Black and Latino communities.
This week, the Los Angeles Unified board voted against defunding its police department after an emotional meeting Tuesday night, saying more study is needed; and Oakland Unified planned to vote Wednesday night on eliminating its campus police. Other districts, such as West Contra Costa Unified, have voted to sever their contracts with local city police departments. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Unified board voted to not renew its contract with the San Francisco Police Department and to direct more money to counseling and other services.
In California, 23 school districts have their own police departments, while others contract with local city police or sheriff’s departments or rely on non-sworn security staff, according to the state Police Officer Standards and Training.
In the budget agreement released Tuesday, the Legislature said it plans to evaluate the role of police on school campuses and study alternatives. It also encouraged school districts to redirect money usually spent on police toward mental health counselors; bias training for teachers and other school staff; and restorative justice, an alternative form of campus discipline where disputes are resolved by talking through problems and addressing underlying causes.
But the budget did not provide districts new money for those initiatives, which can be expensive. Oakland Unified, for example, voted to cut its restorative justice program last year when it faced budget cuts (the program was later restored when the city contributed funds).
The budget does set aside $200,000 for the creation of a Young People’s Task Force to advise the governor and state education leaders on school police matters.
Meanwhile, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said Wednesday that the state is contracting with WestEd, a San Francisco-based nonpartisan nonprofit research firm, to study the effects of police on campus. Thurmond said the research will allow the Department of Education to create policies on school safety based on data about police interactions with students, which is currently limited. The department will also host a series of ethnic studies webinars on the histories and accomplishments of people of color and create curriculum for an ethnic studies class that, if approved, would be required for high school graduation. Bias training will also be made available for all school employees.
“This is a moment of urgency,” he said. “As our state and nation confront difficult conversations about racial justice, it’s evident that schools are uniquely positioned to tackle some of these issues head-on.”
Advocacy groups said they were heartened by the state’s actions, but the moves did not go far enough — not just in addressing police reform but the broader issues of racism, discipline and mental health within the education system.
“We’ll need a stronger stance from the governor on policing in schools to address systemic policing of young people in school,” said Saa’un Bell, strategy director at Californians for Justice. “It’s not just about police in uniforms. It’s about adults on and outside of school campuses participating in the act of policing, as well.”
Bell’s group, along with 21 other advocacy organizations, sent a letter to Newsom last week asking for a ban on school police entirely; more funding for counselors, restorative justice and other student support services and steps to empower Black and Latino students, such as allowing students under age 18 to vote in school board elections and creating a task force to advise how they can benefit from economic recovery efforts.
The American Civil Liberties Union has also been active in efforts to ban school police, issuing a report last year saying that 1.7 million students in the U.S. attended schools with police but no counselors. Schools that emphasize policing over mental health services tend to see worse outcomes for students generally and an overall decline in the school climate, according to the report.
Amir Whitaker, policy counsel for the ACLU of Southern California, said the state “needs to go much further” in addressing the imbalance between school police and counseling.
“The harm that all students, but particularly Black students, are facing is urgent and must be addressed immediately,” he said. “This minimal response to a global uprising is disheartening, especially considering the fact that California leads the nation with schools that have police but no counselors. Serious state leadership and support for defunding school police is needed to provide students with essential services.”
Noemi Soto, statewide coordinator for Dignity in Schools Campaign California, agreed that the state’s actions so far are insufficient. For Black and Latino students, who are disproportionately apprehended and arrested by school police, the matter is especially urgent, she said.
“For the governor to ‘encourage’ schools to do the right thing or to ‘reinvest’ resources if found to be ‘more appropriate’ is not enough for our students and families,” she said, adding that local school boards are taking more aggressive steps to remove police from campuses.
A study released last year by WestEd found 27% of Black students surveyed said it was “not at all true” that the presence of police on their school campuses made them feel safe. About 15% of Latino and white students said they felt that way, along with 9% of Asian students. The survey, conducted in 2017-18, included students from eight diverse school districts in California.
Students involved with Californians for Justice said Tuesday that police were almost always a negative presence on campus, and sometimes caused more harm than good. A better option for handling school discipline is restorative justice and counseling, they said. One student advocated for alumni and community organizers to be available to students inside schools.
“We need people on campus who are trusted, who care about us, who are helpful, who have relationships with us,” said Kamarie Brown, a senior at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles Unified. “The police don’t make things better. For most people, they just trigger more trauma. They want nothing to do with us unless they’re putting us in handcuffs.”
Gloria Ashaolu, who just graduated from high school in Stockton Unified, said banning police is important, but the issue of racism in schools is far deeper. Low expectations, bias among teachers and staff, limited access to challenging coursework and other issues also prevent Black and Latino students from succeeding, she said.
“The issue is bigger than police. It’s a whole system,” she said. “I think of that Malcolm X quote: ‘If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.’ That’s what we need to see.”
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