Los Angeles Unified School District is at a major crossroads. Earlier this year, Superintendent Austin Beutner resigned, and the district began to recruit a new superintendent. The school board’s hiring decision will determine how Los Angeles Unified handles the major challenges the district faces.
Like our nation, Los Angeles Unified is plagued by the interrelated crises of systemic racism and Covid. District, city, and county policies have consistently pushed Black families out of the district. These policies include the disproportionate criminalization and over-policing of Black students and families; lack of social-emotional support and resources, including a lack of adults districtwide who can connect with Black students; and underfunding and/or failed implementation of programs or initiatives that can improve campus climate and provide culturally affirming curriculum. Before a cut in 2020, the LA School Police budget was exponentially increasing, even as student enrollment declined. As Black student enrollment has decreased in recent years, disproportionate arrest, discipline and pushout rates of Black students persist.
The next superintendent must lead on racial justice in the district. Over 82% of respondents to the district’s superintendent search survey agreed that the next candidate needs a track record of prioritizing equity for historically underserved students.
We need a superintendent who will meet with students, families and the community in their first week on the job and commit to trauma-informed care, increased resources and supports for Black and Brown students and families, and police-free schools.
The district has failed to address opportunity and resource disparities that create “achievement gaps.” District decisions, including divestment from neighborhood schools and the expansion of charter schools, have accelerated the destabilization of schools in low-income Black and brown communities. School-to-prison policies have left students with a shortage of social workers, counselors, and academic supports, while criminalizing them with metal detectors and armed school police.
Until recently, educational strategies that empower local communities and emphasize cultural awareness have been underfunded and lacking. These disparities, including myriad forms of trauma and insecurity faced by low-income Black and brown students, have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Recent reforms spurred by community pressure provide hope for the district’s future. In 2020, amidst global uprisings following the murder of George Floyd, massive demonstrations by students, parents, educators and community pushed the school board to reallocate $25 million of the bloated $77 million school police budget into the creation of a Black Student Achievement Plan. Before this program — which students and community advocated for against staunch opposition — few if any adults were on campuses specifically to support Black students, despite the district’s long history of failure to do so. Schools with high Black student enrollment are now provided psychiatric social workers, academic counselors, restorative justice teachers, and Black studies courses. Every secondary school now has a school climate advocate to support students, address behavior issues and de-escalate conflicts.
The district also expanded its Community Schools initiative — which re-imagines neighborhood schools around community priorities by collaborating with students, families, communities and educators — from 30 to 70 schools. Community schools have responded to the pandemic by helping families meet food needs, creating green spaces on campuses, and partnering with non-profit organizations to support students and families. Community schools can help stabilize neighborhoods suffering from disinvestment, neglect and racist policies that have pushed out students and families.
These resources provide a sharp contrast to the trauma caused by school police, who have historically escalated conflicts like fights by pepper-spraying crowds of innocent students. Rather than assaulting and handcuffing students, school climate advocates and counselors build trusting relationships, serve as supportive adults, and de-escalate conflicts. Community-based safety initiatives, like safe passage programs where community members ensure safe routes to and from school, acknowledge the inherent connection between the health and safety of schools and communities.
These community-driven initiatives have generated significant support for underserved students. But this is the first step. Schools need resources and teams of caring adults to transform school climate; district support must reflect this commitment. The school board must ensure that the next superintendent fully supports these initiatives and will lead the district toward re-imagining school safety, climate and culture.
Los Angeles Unified still spends more on police, guns and ammunition than any school district in the country. The district still has more school police than school social workers. The data clearly shows that when cops are in schools, arrests of Black and brown students increase — even though no data shows that they make schools safer. Plus, closures remain a threat for schools in low-income Black and brown neighborhoods, like ongoing situations at Trinity Elementary and Crenshaw High.
While recent initiatives are encouraging, the school board now faces a critical decision. They must find a superintendent with a vision for students to feel safe and supported, not criminalized, who can guide a process to create safety programs that fully replace school police. Students need an experienced educator who is committed to strengthening Los Angeles communities and schools. We need a superintendent who will treat students, families, and communities as partners and not ignore or dismiss us.
Regardless of who the school board chooses, the community will be watching. And we will hold them accountable.
Marshé Doss is a Dorsey High School alumni and youth leader with Students Deserve, an organization of students, teachers and parents in Los Angeles Unified School District. Joseph Williams is a core team member with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.
They wrote this commentary in collaboration with the Police-Free LAUSD Coalition, which includes the organizations Students Deserve, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Brothers Sons Selves Coalition, UTLA, Labor Community Strategy Center, Community Coalition, InnerCity Struggle, Social Justice Learning Institute, CADRE, Reclaim Our Schools LA, ACLU SoCal and Collective for Liberatory Lawyering.
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