For teen activists, defunding school police has been a decade in the making

Sarah Djato at a news conference in Los Angeles
Sarah Djato, right, listens to speakers during a news conference calling for the removal of police from the Los Angeles school system on June 8 in Los Angeles.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times

In the midst of the 1980s war on drugs and in the wake of devastating mass school shootings throughout the country, bolstering school police in Los Angeles was seen as a safety imperative by many educators and parents.

But for the last decade, a number of student advocacy groups have pushed the school board to reduce police presence in their schools, saying Black and Latino children are targeted for discipline more than others.

The Los Angeles School Police Department now employs about 470 officers and civilians, including placement of an armed and uniformed officer at every high school. In a highly publicized turn last week, the leadership of the Los Angeles teachers union voted to support the elimination of the $70-million school police budget.

The union’s public announcement on the steps of City Hall — compelled by two weeks of protests and outrage over police brutality against Black people and the killing of George Floyd — has increased the urgency of the debate within the nation’s second-largest school district. The union leadership joins a number of community-based organizations who say the $70-million school police budget should be used to hire more counselors and build restorative justice programs.


Nationwide, protesters and activists have been calling to “defund the police.” But what does it actually mean? And why are so many people calling for it to happen?

“This moment is different because if you all remember a couple weeks ago, people acted like ... the call to defund police was a radical call,” said Black Lives Matter Los Angeles co-founder Melina Abdullah, a Cal State Los Angeles professor of Pan-African Studies and an L.A. Unified parent. “We’re at a moment when all of a sudden, our most radical imaginings are possible. We can end the system of policing as we know it. We can defund the police. And we have to begin with our children.”

The Los Angeles schools movement comes as school districts and universities throughout the country have joined city debates over defunding or reorganizing police departments.

Ultimately it’s up to the school board, which authorizes police spending, to decide whether to take action — two of seven school board members said they did not support the move, one said the issue should be discussed during budget deliberations and four others either declined or did not respond to requests to comment.

Any move to change the school police workforce is subject to collective bargaining with the police union. L.A. School Police Assn. President Gil Gamez said officers are necessary to keep the peace on campus and are trained to deescalate situations among students. In addition, the department has shared on social media a petition circulating to keep the department intact.

A newly formed coalition of Black school police officers said they support reform, but not elimination of the department. “We are also hurting; and as police officers we understand and accept that there needs to be meaningful change. We are committed to comprehensive, institutional reforms to help eradicate the legacy of systemic racism and violence within law enforcement.”

Groups that have worked for years to reduce police presence on campuses and decrease punitive discipline measures include the South L.A. parent organizing group CADRE, Youth Justice Coalition and the Labor/Community Strategy Center.


“Since this is such a political issue, the reason why you haven’t heard as many calls to completely eliminate the police is because there hasn’t been broad support around it,” said Amir Whitaker, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which has long supported disbanding school police.

Over the years the organizing groups have scored wins — L.A. Unified police agreed in 2014 to stop citing students for minor offenses, such as tardiness or dress code infractions. Between then and 2016, the department returned the military-grade weaponry it had received from the federal government — including grenade launchers. Last year, the school board voted to stop random student searches. Although not performed by school police, the searches were viewed as unfair.

An analysis of L.A. school police data from 2014 to 2017, conducted by Kelly Lytle Hernández, a UCLA professor of history, African American studies and urban planning, showed that Black students had disproportionate rates of interactions with officers, including arrests and “diversions,” a citation meant to funnel students into counseling.

“It’s part of a pattern,” said Lytle Hernández, who was awarded a 2019 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her body of research. “It’s part of a culture we have to break that sees these young kids as more of threats than humans to be invested in.”

How did police end up on school campuses?

The current L.A. School Police Department emerged from a group of unarmed, unsworn security guards who watched over campuses at night in the 1940s, said Manuel Criollo, a strategy team member for the Dignity in Schools Campaign California.

By the time Black and Chicano students led walkouts at their schools in the 1960s, demanding better learning conditions, armed guards patrolled some schools, and increasingly local police officers were assigned to their campuses, he said. When conservative state leadership allowed schools to deputize their own police forces, L.A. Unified codified its force in 1984.

In the years following the Columbine High School shooting and as mass school shootings continued to convulse campuses, school safety rose to the top of parental concerns, and officials nationwide beefed campus law enforcement. In 2018, after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a federal grant program would prioritize funding more school resource officers.

Yet some students and their advocates are concerned about recent instances of police use of force in schools.

Sarah Djato, a Dorsey High School student, said she watched from a campus balcony as L.A. School Police pepper-sprayed classmates during a fight and believes police presence on campus is detrimental to her learning and to Black students’ understanding of the world they live in.

“When you’re having this continuously happen ... to Black students, it becomes in our minds that that is normal and that’s the way we’re supposed to treat situations and you defuse it by force, and that violence is OK and violence is normal,” said Sarah, 16, an organizer in the local youth activism group Students Deserve.

Rebecca Gonzalez, a Fremont High School student, said she, too, saw police use pepper spray at her school during a fight in November. Instead of officers, peacekeepers who are community members, or mental health workers, should staff the schools to preempt fights, both students said.

Both she and Sarah said it was clear from social media and the interactions between students involved that the situations at their schools were escalating far before fistfights erupted. She has hope that the current movement will get more adults — especially teachers, many of whom are white — on board.

“I feel like people are starting to be more aware than they were before. People are starting to take the time to educate themselves, especially white people. Because it’s new to them, it’s not new to us,” said Rebecca, who is Black and Latina. “I’ve never seen so many white people holding themselves accountable.”

L.A. School Police used pepper spray on at least five students during the 2018 calendar year, seven in 2019, and one thus far in 2020, an L.A. Unified spokeswoman said Sunday. The district did not release the names of the school or schools where the incidents took place or the number of instances in which police used pepper spray, except for Hollywood High School in March 2020. School officials are looking through police reports for potential additional incidents, said L.A. Unified spokeswoman Shannon Haber.

During the 2019-2020 school year school, police responded to reports of 403 “assaults-battery,” 369 burglaries, 155 mass shooting threats, 95 robberies, 63 assaults with a deadly weapon, seven bomb threats and five rapes, according to the school district.

Supt. Austin Beutner declined to comment regarding the union’s call to defund police and is expected to discuss school police Monday during his pre-recorded weekly briefing.

Two school board members recall seeing reports that correspond to varying degrees with the accounts of students. Board member George McKenna said he remembers being alerted of a melee at least once.

The Fremont High School incident was widely reported on because 30 Los Angeles Police Department officers responded in riot gear to reports of multiple fights on campus. There also were school police officers at the scene. It was the LAPD that used the pepper spray, said Dulce Lopez, deputy chief of staff for board President Richard Vladovic.

The complications of eliminating a police department

McKenna, who worked for decades as a school administrator and principal, said an officer on campus is a positive force.

“Given the violence on some campuses and the possibility of school shootings anywhere — to not have a school police officer there makes you much more vulnerable,” he said. “It’s a deterrent more than anything and mostly a deterrent for the outside threat.”

School board member Nick Melvoin said he would be open to reforming the department, but does not support shutting down police presence completely. Vladovic, who has maintained a working relationship with the employee unions on each side of this issue, said “there needs to be an open and honest debate...and I believe we need to address institutional racism wherever it exists.”

In addition, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said last week that he does not support eliminating school-based police departments completely.

“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 ... who disciplines a student for doing things that students do.”