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Why Advocates Want Police Out Of LAUSD Schools

Protestors rallying at L.A. Unified School District's downtown headquarters during a demonstration calling for the district to defund the L.A. School Police. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)
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The growing chorus of calls to defund or outright dismantle the Los Angeles School Police have reignited a debate over a long-simmering question: Are police on school campuses a detriment to learning?

Advocates have been arguing that point for years. They point to research showing Black students can feel targeted by school discipline and law enforcement, and looking at how much money is spent on school police in comparison to support for vulnerable students.

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Experts say these experiences can affect students' ability to learn.

"When kids are under stress, they don't perform as well," said Pedro Noguera, most recently Distinguished Professor of Education at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the incoming dean of the USC's Rossier's School of Education. "When kids are taken out of the classroom to be punished or to be processed in some way, they're not in school learning."

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School police officials and their supporters say forces like the L.A. School Police are specially trained to de-escalate conflicts and that officers generally have good relationships with students. But the social movements surrounding police violence and racism have drawn renewed attention to the issue.

William Etue, the vice president of the Los Angeles School Police Association, the union representing the officers, acknowledges "some tragic incidents throughout the history of law enforcement," but claims the most recent wave of scrutiny is a "knee-jerk reaction going with current trends." He specifically cited the leadership of LAUSD teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which recently joined other labor unionsin support of a broader Black Lives Matter campaign to shift funding for police departments toward other social service programs.

But advocates like Amir Whitaker, a policy attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, say the conversation about law enforcement at schools is much longer in the making.

"I think the public is more receptive to truths that advocates have been speaking for so long," Whitaker explained. "But it's just undeniable in the wake of what's happened recently... not just the death of George Floyd and that tragedy, but the way the police have responded to it."

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Whitaker and his colleagues at the ACLU have worked on studies and campaigns looking closely at schools around the state and country. They counted the number of schools with law enforcement, but without counselors.

"Positions and supports for students that we envision in a traditional school have been sacrificed at the expense of police," he said.

Whitaker also points to research by UCLA assistant professor Emily Weisburst.

When doing graduate work in Texas, Weisburst -- a researcher with a focus in labor economics, criminal justice policy, and education -- looked at the relationship between grants to fund police in schools and educational outcomes for students at those schools.

"We are devoting a lot of resources to police in schools, and there can be protective benefits to that, potentially," she explained. "But there are also really big potential costs that I think we need to be concerned about."

The costs she found include small but statistically significant drops in the graduation rate and college enrollment rate for students at those schools.

But why would the presence of law enforcement have an effect on learning?

Noguera said that is because the culture of a school -- and how safe and supported students feel there -- are all crucial for learning, and that the presence of police "can detract from that."

"If they are present -- and there probably are schools where they need to be present -- they should be predicting the perimeter of schools to make sure that no one can come and hurt children," Noguera said. "They should not be there to address issues in school. That's what we hire educators for."

But Etue of the L.A. School Police union says those criticisms don't reflect his 15 years with the department.

"My experience is that kids really have a great relationship with us," Etue said.

In a conversation that mirrors the calls for police reform outside of the classroom, the LAUSD school board and administration now have to figure out what the future of that relationship will be.

On Tuesday, the board is expected to consider resolutions that would direct the district to study, reform, or even de-fund its police department and redirect the money toward counseling and other support for students.

"If our department was reduced or eliminated," Etue said, "the vulnerabilities would only increase and I would be highly concerned for how our students would feel at the school sites, knowing that there's not somebody there to protect them."

Unlike many other districts, which contract with local police and law enforcement agencies, LAUSD operates its own police department. It's one of the largest of its kind in the country, and according to the district, they are called more than 100,000 times a school year.

A Los Angeles School Police vehicle parked outside of Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts on the first day of school, August 20, 2019. (Carla Javier/KPCC)

In a Monday update to the school community, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner urged caution in moving forward with growing calls to dismantle the force. He noted that "school staff of all types have been victims of assault at schools," and that while "Black students are disproportionately represented in arrests ... they are also disproportionately the victims of crimes in schools."

He issued a warning on proceeding "before one rushes to judgment on this issue."

"Those who want to abolish school police ... need to explain to those who are in favor of school police why campuses will be safer in their absence," Beutner said in the recorded video. "And those who think it's just fine the way things are must provide a reasoned answer to students who feel the stigma of an armed presence on campus."

Beutner had previously said he will recommend banning a maneuver called the carotid hold, which is a controversial way of restraining someone by pressing on the arteries in their neck. The district says the maneuver has not been used in schools in the past three school years.

The L.A. School Police Association agrees with this change, Etue said -- though he thinks there should be further discussion about Beutner's other recommendation, to get rid of pepper spray. According to the district's police department, it was used four times this school year, and 11 times in the 2018-19 school year.

While the UTLA leadership came out in support of defunding the school police and reallocating its $70 million to mental health support and counselors, unions representing other district employees, including Associated Administrators Los Angeles, have signed a letter in support of keeping the school police around.

In it, they emphasize that school police in LAUSD, by design, aren't supposed to be like other cops -- that they're trained to get to know, work with, and protect young people from dangers, not discipline them.

But even Etue acknowledges that difference might not be immediately obvious to students. Even at first glance, L.A. School Police uniforms look a lot like LAPD uniforms.

"We've also considered uniform changes and other things to make us more approachable to students," Etue said.

Far short of chants to defund school police, the district instead announced on Monday the formation of a nine-member task force including educators, former public defenders and prosecutors, and public policy experts has been convened to assess "the training, practices, policies and budget of the Los Angeles School Police." The panel will meet twice a week and is expected to deliver preliminary recommendations by August and a full report by the end of the year.

In his weekly update, Beutner said he's asked the task force to look into shifting 10% of the $70 million school police budget to bringing "experienced community counselors to campuses to help mentor students and influence potential incidents before they escalate."

Other reforms put forth by the LAUSD board members in their resolutions include:

  • Only hiring officers who haven't worked in other law enforcement agencies
  • Moving L.A. School Police to the perimeter of schools, to protect campuses from outside threats
  • Creating focus groups/task forces to look closely at current L.A. School Police practices.

Board member Mónica Garci�?a's resolution is the closest to the demands of advocates. It calls for reducing the school police budget -- first by 50%, then 75%, then 90% -- and redirecting funds to supports for Black students .
"It's actually shocking to me that elected officials would take that step," Etue said of defunding the department.

The school police union instead supports board member George McKenna's resolution, to form a committee of parents, students, and experts to look more closely at school police practices.

But for advocates like Whitaker from the ACLU of Southern California, the question is: Do reforms short of defunding go far enough?

"Even in LAUSD where they say, 'Oh, well, officers have special training,' it's like putting a pillow in front of a hammer. It's still a hammer, right?"

KPCC's Chava Sanchez also contributed reporting to this story.