Defunding School Police: In Oakland, an Emphatic Yes; In L.A., Not So Fast

Jessica Black, organizing director with the Black Organizing Project, at a recent rally in support of eliminating the Oakland School Police Department. Photo by Ryan Sin.

Amid ongoing protests against police brutality and racial injustice, two of California’s largest school districts  this week joined other education leaders across the country pressured to rethink their policing of students.

After weeks of public protest and a 12-hour school board meeting Tuesday, the deeply divided Los Angeles Unified School District turned aside plans to defund its school police department in favor of further study, rejecting impassioned pleas to disband the force of 471 officers patrolling 1,386 schools across the city. 

But the board of the Oakland Unified School District, meeting the next day, took a different approach, unanimously deciding to eliminate its school Police Department ahead of the next school year. The George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department could redirect up to $2.5 million in funding from the Police Department to students. That is believed to be the first time that an education system of Oakland’s size – with 50,000 students – has abolished its school police department entirely.

“This is a way to reimagine how we educate children without harming them with constant contact with the police,” school board director Roseann Torres said at Wednesday’s meeting.

In Oakland and Los Angeles, thousands of protesters of all races and ethnicities spent days in the streets calling for an end to the school district-funded police forces that unfairly criminalize students of color.

The day of the Los Angeles school board meeting Tuesday, protesters organized by Students Deserve and Black Lives Matter rallied outside district headquarters, at one point, standing across Beaudry Street and using their bodies to spell out “Defund LASPD,” the initials of the Los Angeles School  Police Department.

Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, speaks to protesters outside LAUSD headquarters on Tuesday. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

Speaking from the back of a flatbed truck to a crowd  blocking traffic in both directions, Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, called out the names of young people lynched and killed by police violence throughout America’s history — from 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 to 14-year-old Jessie Romero in Los Angeles in 2016.

But after hours of testimony and heated debate on Tuesday,  the Los Angeles school board was unable to agree on any of three proposed plans – including one submitted by board member Monica Garcia that would have reduced the $70 million Police Department budget by 90% over two years. Another one, from board member Jackie Goldberg, would have removed $20 million from the force’s budget next year and restricted school police from wearing uniforms or coming on campus. 

Instead of deciding on a plan, the school board will wait to hear from a task force on school police formed by Superintendent Austin Beutner this week.

While Beutner said “the pace of change must be more rapid” when it comes to the role of school police, he added: “Those looking for a simple answer will be disappointed because I do not believe it exists.”

A wave of cities across the country have moved far more quickly to eject police from schools. 

In Oakland, a successful effort driven by the efforts of the Black Organizing Project calls for the district to abolish its school Police Department, whose 10 sworn officers and 50 unarmed campus safety officers patrol 118 schools. Money budgeted for the department will go toward social workers and other student support services. Starting next month, Oakland Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell will gather community members and school stakeholders to create a new “school safety plan.” 

Just days after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin suffocated George Floyd, the Minneapolis Board of Education unanimously agreed to stop allowing members of the Minneapolis Police Department to serve as school resource officers. And in recent weeks, Portland and Denver have also said they will no longer allow city police departments to patrol schools.

Youth justice advocates in California have spent more than a decade trying to end what has come to be known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” – a troubling trajectory fueled by excessive discipline imposed on kids of color. 

A 2018 report from three education professors at San Diego State University and UCLA found that Black male students in California are suspended at 3.6 times the rate of the statewide average. And according to the Million Dollar Hoods project at UCLA, Black youth make up 25% of all student arrests in the Los Angeles school district, despite comprising less than 9% of the student population. One in 4 of all L.A. arrests by school police are for children in middle school or younger. 

Aliyah, a senior at L.A. High School and member of Students Deserve, hopes to see school police removed from her school. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

Aliyah, a 17-year-old member of the youth-led Students Deserve advocacy group, said armed police on her Los Angeles High School campus do not help promote safety. Instead, she said the officer seems to be follow the Black students around school, making them feel “an aura of always being watched.” 

Aliyah, whose last name is not being used to protect her identity as a minor, said she wants the school police force defunded, a view she came to after witnessing how they handled a fight on her campus in April 2019. Her organization has worked to end the tear gassing and random searches of students on Los Angeles campuses.

Aliyah said school administrators and students knew earlier in the day the fight was brewing, but  instead of de-escalating the situation, the school police officer waited until one teen had knocked the other one out before stepping in. At that point, the officer pepper-sprayed the unconscious boy, still lying prone on the schoolyard, along with all other students nearby.

“It’s hard to think about your education after watching something like that,” Aliyah said.

Aliyah is not alone in those views. A survey of more than 5,000 current and former LAUSD students released on Friday by Students Deserve found that 85% of all youth said they had had negative experiences with school police, including being followed, questioned, searched, subjected to the use of force and racially profiled. Black students were three times as likely as white students to have been followed by school police, the survey found.

According to the Black Male Institute at UCLA, funding for Los Angeles Unified school police has increased by 48% over the past 14 years, even as enrollment has dropped by 18%. Meanwhile, despite a surge in mental health incidents over the past nine years, the school district has not yet met a goal of one counselor for every 500 students.

But addressing these disparities by defunding school police in Los Angeles is set to be far a more complicated process than tearing up a memorandum of understanding with city police departments. And with nearly 600,000 students, L.A.’s school system is almost 12 times the size of Oakland’s. Its unionized school police are more deeply embedded in the district, with strong support from three school board members who are former school administrators.  

On Tuesday, dozens of Los Angeles school police and their supporters showed up to the meeting online, and in person, part of a limited number of people who were able to comment do so.

They warned of unintended consequences if the police are removed from schools, including increased threats from gangs and even mass shootings.

Ciara Che Callwood, an artist and teacher, joined protesters calling for LAUSD to defund its school police on June 16 at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. Photo: Jeremy Loudenback

Nicole McMahon, who works as a mental health administrator with the school district, said that reducing or eliminating the school police could mean a greater likelihood that municipal law enforcement agencies would intervene in schools, something that “could lead to far more deadly outcomes for our students.” She also said that the district should do more to discourage teachers and administrators from calling the school police on Black students.

“The elimination of LASPD cannot fix that,” McMahon said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Organizations working to oust police from L.A. schools – including Students Deserve, Black Lives Matter, Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE), the Labor/Community Strategy Center and the Youth Justice Coalition – would like to see hundreds more psychiatric social workers, nurses, counselors and teacher’s aides on campuses – instead of police – much like the Oakland plan.

For Maisie Chin, the longtime leader of CADRE and a pioneering force in the effort to draw attention to school pushout and racial injustice in L.A. schools, Oakland’s Black Organizing Project serves as a “north star” for groups across the state that are working to create less punitive classrooms, particularly in its unrelenting refusal to compromise over allowing law enforcement on campuses.

“It would be my dream if they go first and we follow,” Chin said. 

The Black Organizing Project has been lobbying the Oakland Unified School District for years to address punitive practices that target Black students, including asking teachers last year to take a “Black Sanctuary pledge,” in an effort not to call school police on Black students for nonviolent incidents. The group began working to defund the Oakland school police in 2011 in response to the killing of 20-year old Raheim Brown by Oakland school police Sgt. Barhin Bhatt.

Black Organizing Project Director Jackie Byers celebrates on Wednesday after the Oakland Unified Board agreed to eliminate its school police department. Photo: B.O.P. Facebook Livestream

In 2019, it published the People’s Plan for Police-Free Schools, which calls for “transforming” the school Police Department by repurposing security personnel into a “peace-keeping force” that would address some concerns around safety. The Black Organizing Project’s blueprint acknowledges that many security guards in schools come from the same communities as Black students and have nurtured positive relationships with youth.

In comments at the meeting on Wednesday, Black Organizing Project Director Jackie Byers said that the effort to eradicate Oakland school police had taken nearly a decade because of the difficulty persuading many people that living without school police is possible. Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers changed that reticence and helped bring Oakland to the edge of momentous change.

“We are here because he brought us to a moment in this country where we could no longer wait,” Byers said. 

Jeremy Loudenback is a senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change and can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org.