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Students Wanted To Hand Out 'Defund School Police' Buttons On Campus. The ACLU Says LA Unified Interfered

Two speakers in the distance stand on a stage in front of a hand-painted banner that says "Police Free LAUSD." The speakers are addressing a large group of students seated under a white tent.
Student activists left this "Police Free LAUSD" rally on Feb. 26, 2022, with buttons and flyers they planned to distribute at their schools the following week. Some students say they encountered resistance from their principals.
(Photo courtesy of Brothers Sons Selves & Students Deserve)
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Activist and civil rights groups say staff on several Los Angeles public school campuses have blocked students from handing out buttons and flyers promoting their cause: defunding the L.A. Unified School District’s police force.

This week, attorneys at the ACLU of Southern California sent a letter to LAUSD urging district officials to clarify their policies on student expression on-campus. The ACLU argued that when principals allegedly stopped students from sharing their political materials, LAUSD “plainly violate[d] students’ constitutional and statutory rights.”

What Happened At One School

On 10 different LAUSD campuses, students affiliated with an activist group, Students Deserve, have reported difficulties handing out flyers and buttons that read “Fully Defund L.A. School Police,” according to organizer Mau Trejo. Trejo declined to name all 10 campuses, saying some students feared retaliation from administrators for speaking out.

However, the ACLU’s letter does name one of the campuses: Middle College High School in West Athens, where 16-year-old Destiny Tillear is a junior.

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A group of students sit under a white tent in front of a hand-painted sign that reads, "As leaders, we have the right to speak."
Student activists left this "Police Free LAUSD" rally on Feb. 26, 2022, with buttons and flyers they planned to distribute at their schools the following Wednesday, March 2. Some students say they encountered resistance from their principals.
(Photo courtesy of Brothers Sons Selves & Students Deserve)

In late February, Tillear obtained flyers and 300 buttons from Students Deserve. She planned to distribute them during lunch and after school on March 2: “I didn’t want to force it upon people.”

After handing out many of the buttons and flyers, Tillear learned that Middle College’s principal, William Bazadier, wanted to talk to her. She went to his office, where Bazadier told her she needed prior approval to distribute the materials anywhere on-campus during the school day.

Tillear told the principal that wasn’t true. State law and LAUSD policy says students have a right to pass out political literature “during non-instructional periods” — so long as the material doesn’t incite violence or contain obscene, libelous or slanderous content.

In a statement to LAist, LAUSD officials didn’t address concerns across all campuses, but did say that at Middle College, no violation of students’ rights took place: “School administration did not interfere with the exercise of the student’s free speech rights. Instead, school administration inquired into the student’s activities only to ensure that they were within district policies and applicable laws.”

Still, spokesperson Shannon Haber said district officials “will review our protocols to ensure … the importance of the student voice is heard and protected.”

Victor Leung, an attorney and director of education equity at the ACLU, backed Tillear in an email: “Even if Destiny needed pre-approval (which ACLU doesn’t believe she does), [the principal] must approve it immediately, and she should be allowed to pass out buttons and flyers right now.”

Tillear said Bazadier was cordial; the meeting was even light-hearted at times. Nevertheless, she walked out of the office feeling shaken.

“It was just wrong,” Tillear said. “I knew I wasn’t in trouble, but it felt like I was in trouble for something I knew I could do.”

‘Whether Or Not You Agree’

Trejo and Leung said the buttons and flyers are part of a broader, LAUSD-wide campaign that Students Deserve and a coalition of activist groups — including the ACLU, Black Lives Matter L.A. and the district’s teachers union, among others — launched on March 2.

Trejo said students and activists have handed out nearly 10,000 buttons at more than 50 LAUSD schools. They’re trying to ramp up pressure on school board members to pull all funding for the L.A. School Police Department from the district’s budget, which is due at the end of June.

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Two years ago, board members slashed the department’s budget by $25 million, leading to immediate layoffs of some four-dozen sworn officers. Activists want the board to go further.

“The main goal of Students Deserve really resonated with me,” said Simya Smith, a junior at Dorsey High School, “because as a Black, Muslim woman … [in 2020] I had to sit back and watch the entire world debate whether my life actually mattered.”

Smith said Dorsey’s principal is aware she’s handing out Students Deserve literature. She even gave a button to another administrator at the school. But Smith is “disappointed” that staff at other schools have been less supportive.

“Whether or not you agree with the political opinion on these flyers or on those buttons,” she said, “that doesn’t mean that you have the right to prohibit students from passing them out and sharing their political opinions with other students.”

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).