A movement to reform California public school policing and drastically rethink school safety is quickly gaining momentum amid nationwide protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd.
In Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento and San Francisco, administrators and school boards are under pressure from students and community groups who are renewing demands for police-free schools and calling on districts to instead hire more counselors and other student support services. In some cases, including in Oakland and San Francisco, those ideas are now winning the support of majorities of school board members.
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond at a press conference on Wednesday said he understands why “many are questioning why there should be police on campuses.” He said the California Department of Education is currently looking into standards for training school police officers, adding that he supports increased implicit bias training for officers.
“We need to have standards for school resource officers,” Thurmond said. “Those standards mean that we should never, ever at any school, expect a police officer to be the dean of students or a disciplinarian who disciplines a student for doing things that students do. There should be no criminalization of students for engaging in student behavior.”
Opponents of school police point to research showing that the presence of police in schools can lead to negative outcomes for black and Latino students, who are arrested and disciplined at higher rates than their peers. For those students, interactions with school police are often their introduction to the criminal justice system and the beginning of what has been dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the national trend of students being funneled from public schools to incarceration.
Protesters across the country over the past two weeks have demanded police reform after a bystander’s cell phone video captured a Minneapolis police officer pressing a knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, killing him. In the weeks since his death, police departments in California and across the country have banned the practice of neck restraints used on Floyd.
“With everything going on right now in the world, with the social climate where it is, this is the moment,” said Ashantee Polk, a high school senior in Los Angeles and one of dozens of members of Students Deserve Justice, a group of students across the Los Angeles Unified School District. The coalition for several years has pushed to reduce school policing in the district.
“Police feel like a threat to students, especially to black and brown students. Black and brown students are intimidated by police,” Polk added.
Schools in California aren’t alone in facing calls to reform how their schools are policed. Across the country in large urban school districts, activists are making similar demands. So far, school districts in Minneapolis and Portland have said they will remove police from schools by no longer contracting with city police.
The movement to remove police in Los Angeles this week gained significant support from United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union representing tens of thousands of teachers in the district. The union’s president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, said the union’s board of directors voted 35-2 to disband the district’s police department, which with more than 400 sworn officers is the largest independent school police force in the nation. Echoing the beliefs of some students, Caputo-Pearl said the $70 million the district spends on the department could be better allocated to mental health services.
District leaders, however, have so far given no indication that they are considering eliminating or cutting back on the department. Superintendent Austin Beutner did not return a request for comment on this story.
The union representing the officers, the Los Angeles School Police Association, says reducing or eliminating police presence on campus puts students at risk.
“The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) Board of Directors took the tragic and unnecessary death of George Floyd and attempted to use that as a political platform to remove the Los Angeles School Police Department from LAUSD and put OUR children at risk,” the police union said in a statement this week.
Activists calling for removing police from other districts across the state are making more progress. The Black Organizing Project, a community coalition focused on racial justice, for years has called for police to be taken out of Oakland schools. In recent days, the group has organized protests and press conferences to pressure Oakland Unified to eliminate its police department.
Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell on Wednesday night announced her support for the plan, which also has the support of a majority of the school board. A resolution from school board members Roseann Torres and Shanthi Gonzales would get rid of the department and severely limit city police’s interaction with schools. The board is scheduled to vote on the resolution on June 24.
“This is probably the most support and attention we’ve gotten on this issue,” said Jasmine Williams, spokeswoman for the Black Organizing Project. “And so that’s why we’re pressing super hard.”
In nearby West Contra Costa Unified, the district’s school board voted unanimously Wednesday to terminate the district’s contracts with local police departments.
School leaders in San Francisco are also reconsidering whether police should be in schools. Currently, San Francisco Unified contracts with the San Francisco Police Department to assign officers to schools, but the district is renegotiating that contract.
School board president Mark Sanchez is in favor of not renewing the contract, he said Tuesday, while adding that the district would need to come up with an “exit strategy.”
“Any money that we are spending on this program is not OK. It sends a horrible message to our students of color,” Sanchez said during a school board meeting.
In Sacramento, the Black Parallel School Board, a group that advocates for black students, said in a statement this week that police shouldn’t be in schools — a view the organization has held for years.
“Policing in our schools teaches young people that they are viewed as criminals, not scholars,” the group said.
While districts such as L.A. Unified and Oakland Unified have their own school police departments, the vast majority of school districts in California do not. Instead, like San Francisco and West Contra Costa, most districts contract with municipal police agencies that provide officers to patrol schools. Those personnel are called school resource officers.
School police officers and school resource officers typically carry firearms.
Separately, schools also often employ security guards, who don’t carry firearms and who provide another layer of security. L.A. Unified and Oakland Unified each have unarmed school security officers who patrol campuses.
School shootings over the last two decades have often led school districts to justify more — not less — police presence at schools across the country. Security at LA Unified schools and other schools across the country intensified after the Columbine school shooting in 1999 and again after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.
It’s unclear, however, whether more school police and security actually prevent school shootings. The 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead, occurred while there was an armed officer on campus. There were also officers present on the Santa Fe High School campus when a student shot and killed eight students and two teachers in 2018.
After the Parkland shooting, thousands of academics and psychologists signed a document calling for preventative measures to end gun violence at schools, rather than investing more in police and other school security to prepare for shootings. The document called for a “comprehensive public health approach” that, among other steps, suggested a national requirement for schools to assess school climate and implement higher staffing levels of counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.
When schools instead invest in a heavy police presence, it can negatively impact school climate, said Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare at UCLA and an expert on school safety.
“Very heavily armed schools prime the kids in those schools to think of the place more like a prison,” he said. “Militarizing and turning schools into things that look like prisons is not healthy for development. It’s not healthy for identity.”
In Oakland, the Black Organizing Project has called for restructuring the role of security personnel so that they emphasize “peace-keeping” and work under the district’s Office of Equity or Behavioral Health Department. Under the school board resolution introduced this week, the district would hire social workers, psychologists and other mental or behavioral health professionals with the money it saves by eliminating the police department.
“Too often, the inclination is to focus on physical aspects such as police, school resource officers, metal detectors, surveillance cameras, security systems and such. Supporting and promoting the social, emotional, behavioral, mental health of students is equally important in promoting school safety and promoting safe, supportive and effective schools,” said Shane Jimerson, a professor of psychology at University of California, Santa Barbara, and an expert on school safety.
Polk, the Los Angeles high school senior, said a police officer patrolled her high school every day when schools were open. She said it made her uncomfortable to know an officer was present at the campus, especially when she first entered high school in 2016.
At the time, on Polk’s mind was the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who in 2015 was pulled over for failing to use a turn signal. She was arrested and later found hanged in her Texas jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide. Her family accused police and the jail of not doing enough to prevent her death, and later settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.9 million.
“I was a little scared. I kind of wanted to move schools because I thought, being around school police on campus, that’s a little scary,” Polk said.
Fernando Escobar, a 2013 graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in L.A. Unified, said he experienced similar anxiety about the police officer that patrolled his school.
“He seemed really like a decent person, but at the same time, there’s an underlying feeling of uneasiness,” Escobar said. “At least for me, I just feel uneasy with any police around.”
Jayden Eden, a student at South Pasadena High School, said he believed searches of students at his school using drug-sniffing dogs are disproportionately targeted at classes with more black and Latino students.
Eden wrote this week in an op-ed for the community news website South Pasadenan that Advanced Placement classes at the school are filled with white and Asian students, while mostly black and Latino students are enrolled in “regular classes.”
“I can recall several periods in which my regular classes had been searched,” he wrote. “However, not at any point could I recall during the entire year of AP United States History that we’d been taken and formally searched.”
Black students are also more likely to be disciplined by school police.
In Los Angeles, black students made up 25% of all arrests, citations and diversions issued by the school police from 2014 through 2017, despite black students accounting for less than 9% of the student population, according to an analysis by UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods project, which studies arrest records and mass incarceration in Los Angeles.
Similar trends exist in Oakland. In 2013, a report found that over a two-year period, black students accounted for 73% of the Oakland School Police Department’s arrests even though they made up only 30.5% of the student population.
L.A. Unified has taken some steps in recent years to reform its policing practices. In 2013, the district banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” which includes defying teachers and other staff or disrupting school activities.
Following advocacy from Students Deserve Justice, L.A. Unified’s school board voted last summer to end the district’s practice of randomly searching students with metal detectors, which students said was an invasive practice that disproportionately subjected black students to searches.
Sgt. Rudy Perez, the public information officer for the L.A. school police department, said school police officers in Los Angeles also focus heavily on “relational-based policing.” They work to build relationships with students and help guide students “in the right direction,” Perez said.
“We are definitely an organization that is very progressive,” Perez said. “I can’t tell you how many stories that I have heard time after time of the impact that officers make in kids’ lives.”
To some students and advocates, however, those types of roles should be left to psychologists, counselors and other professionals.
“If police officers are counseling students, that’s the job of counselors, and they can hire more counselors to do that,” said Amir Whitaker, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, which has advocated for school districts to hire more counselors and fewer police officers.
Polk and Escobar both said they could have used counseling in high school but weren’t comfortable going to a police officer for that support.
While in high school, Escobar thought school was pointless, felt lost and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. But he never considered going to the police for guidance because he viewed the officer as someone who was in his school “to uphold the law,” he said.
“That’s not something that made me think, ‘This guy can help me with how I’m feeling,’” Escobar added.
Whitaker said he expects that more students across the state will have similar experiences unless schools reconsider the role of school police.
“It’s almost like we have a leaky roof and the school police are like the bucket that’s just going to collect the water,” Whitaker said. “And investing in mental health support services would be like actually getting up there on the roof.”