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Criminal Justice

LA County Inspector General Looking Into Racial Discrimination Allegations Involving Sheriff’s Deputies At Lancaster High Schools

Students protest outside of Lancaster High School
Students protest outside of Lancaster High School in September during a rally for student MiKayla Robinson, who was body slammed by a Sheriff’s deputy on campus in August.
(Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)
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L.A. County’s Inspector General is looking into allegations of racial discrimination raised by a joint LAist-ProPublica investigation on high school campuses in the Antelope Valley.

Priscilla Ocen, chair of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, asked Inspector General Max Huntsman’s office to explore our finding that in 2019, L.A. Sheriff’s deputies working as school resource officers disproportionately stopped and cited Black teens at high schools in Lancaster.

“If students of color are telling us they feel like they are under siege in a place that they are supposed to be safe, and they feel that the people that are supposed to be providing that safety are actually providing the insecurity, then that's … deeply troubling to me,” Ocen told us.

She also asked Huntsman to investigate allegations of racial discrimination in the Antelope Valley beyond its high schools.

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Huntsman said his office is troubled by our findings.

L.A. County Inspector General Max Huntsman. (Mel Melcon-Pool/Getty Images)

“I'm concerned about the conduct,” Huntsman told us Thursday. “I'm concerned about the potential liability for the county.” At last week’s meeting of the oversight panel, he said “it’s a very serious matter that needs to be closely looked at.”

The Antelope Valley Union High School District did not respond to a request for comment.

Our analysis of Sheriff’s Department data found that Black teenagers accounted for 60% of the deputy contacts on school campuses in Lancaster in 2019 but made up only about 20% of the enrollment in those schools, a finding Ocen cited in the Oversight Commission meeting.

‘A Very Entertaining Piece Of Fiction’

Huntsman told us the allegations showed a “repeat, or possibly a repeat, of what happened in the Antelope Valley relating to low income housing.”

In 2015, the federal Justice Department formally accused the L.A. County Housing Authority and the Sheriff's Department of working together to discriminate against Black Section 8 residents in the hopes of driving them out of the Antelope Valley.

The Sheriff’s Department and the Justice Department agreed to a consent decree that year; the department committed itself to implementing reforms that included protections against racial profiling.

At last week’s Oversight Commission meeting, Lancaster Sheriff’s Station Captain John Lecrivain disputed our analysis of his agency’s data, as well as claims of racial discrimination made by people we interviewed. He called our report “a very entertaining piece of fiction.”

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When asked by Ocen to provide data that would back up his claim that we had misinterpreted the statistics, Lecrivain said, “that’s going to have to come from someone above me.”

‘Young People Are Not Little Adults’

During our investigation, Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Ruppert, team leader of the Lancaster station’s school safety unit, said the vast majority of deputies’ contacts on campuses are based on referrals from school staff and administrators — not initiated by law enforcement.

Lecrivain said that this year in Antelope Valley high schools, “a large percentage” of the contacts involving deputies on campus have been resolved through diversion methods.

“If a student is going to be placed into the system, it's because the level of the incident has gone to a point that is not applicable for diversion,” he said.

Our investigation with ProPublica found, however, that in 2019, some students detained by deputies were accused of what some experts said were routine school disciplinary issues.

At last week’s meeting of the oversight panel, Ocen also asked the commission’s ad hoc use of force committee to consider working with the Sheriff’s Department to develop different use of force policies for children.

“Young people are not little adults, they are developmentally different,” she said at the meeting. “They are emotionally different. I think all of us would agree that we don't want to criminalize our youth.”

Without Transparency, ‘We Will Not Sign Off’

Our investigation was also cited in a recent study conducted by Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County and Cal State Northridge, which found that children as young as 5 are having daily contact with Sheriff’s deputies employed as school resource officers.

In June, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to demand more data on who deputies stop on school campuses and why. Starting next year, the Sheriff’s Department will have to get the board’s approval for school resource officer contracts with school districts.

Huntsman told the Oversight Commission that his office, which reviews those contracts, will look closely at the next proposed contract for the Antelope Valley Union High School District.

He said his interest was further piqued when the Sheriff’s Department refused to hand over body camera footage from an August incident at Lancaster High School involving 16-year-old student MiKayla Robinson, who was body slammed by the school resource officer, Deputy Daniel Acquilano.

The incident was recorded on a bystander’s phone and went viral.

“If they choose not to allow us to monitor, we will not sign off on the [school resource officer] contract,” Huntsman told the Oversight Commission last week. “That's as simple as that.”

Lisa Bloom, lawyer for the family speaks in front of press microphones at a press conference to remove LASD from Lancaster High.
Lisa Bloom (right), the family attorney, speaks alongside Mikayla Robinson (left) and her mother, Neesh Robinson (center).
(Emily Elena Dugdale

At the oversight panel meeting, Lancaster Station Captain Lecrivain said he doesn’t have the authority to release the body cam footage.

Robinson filed a claim for damages with the Antelope Valley high school district and L.A. County earlier this month. A claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

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Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.