In the 2016-17 school year, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) budgeted $67.34 million of its $13.5 billion budget for school police. Restorative justice programming, meant to help improve student behavior and provide alternatives to suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, received only $10.81 million.
“We don’t have a funding deficit, we have a values deficient,” said Justin Marks, program manager for strategic initiatives at Liberty Hill Foundation, while presenting to the LAUSD’s Successful School Climate Committee in November 2016.
Marks speaks on behalf of the Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS) Coalition, which advocates for positive alternatives to punitive school discipline policies and reducing criminalization in communities of color throughout Los Angeles.
The presence of police officers on school campuses has been a pressing topic of conversation across the state and country recently. While many researchers and California legislators recommend removing or at least better regulating the presence of officers on K-12 campuses, the LAUSD defends its school police officers, speaking to the many ways in which they protect and serve students.
It’s unclear how policies surrounding the regulation of police on school campuses will change, but the BSS Coalition is asking that the LAUSD create a budget for the 2017-18 school year that prioritizes rehabilitative discipline over policing. “We respectfully request a $6.2 million increase in restorative justice budget,” said Marks at April’s Successful School Climate Committee meeting.
Responding to Concerns about School Police Officers
A study released in October 2016 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California found that the outsourcing of school discipline to police officers results in disproportionally high rates of arrests of students who are poor, minority and disabled – and many California schools lack clear policies for when and how police may be called to campus, if they aren’t stationed there already. Based on its findings, the ACLU recommends that police officers never be permanently assigned to school campuses.
This report led to multiple policy initiatives in Sacramento. One such initiative is Assembly Bill 173, authored by Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), which aims to mandate the collection of data involving police intervention on school campuses. Assembly Bill 173 has recently been marked as a two-year bill that will undergo a number of revisions before it goes to a vote. Therefore, for the foreseeable future, much of police regulations will continue to be left to individual school districts.
The LAUSD has its own police force – the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD). With over 410 sworn police officers, 101 non-sworn school safety officers, and 34 civilian support staff, the LASPD is the largest independent school police force in the country. In 2013, there were 105 schools within the LAUSD with a sworn law enforcement officer on campus.
In response to the ACLU report, Chief Steve Zipperman of the Los Angeles School Police Department wrote that it “reflects neither the incredible work performed daily by the men and women of the School Police, both on- and off-campus, nor that of the dedicated L.A. Unified administrators, teachers and staff who work tirelessly to provide a safe and nurturing school climate to support our students for success.”
Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, wrote that the ACLU report is a “mixture of ‘facts,’ incomplete, anecdotal accounts, and statistical projections.” Siddall also took on proposed legislation limiting the presence of police officers on campus. “Bullying, sexual assaults, and gun violence are recognized problems in our schools,” he wrote. Siddall believes that police need to be able to investigate and arrest perpetrators of these crimes, and thinks some of the recently proposed bills “go way beyond the protections afford[ed] under both the 4th and 5th amendments.”
A Student Advocate for Restorative Justice
Daniel Garcia, age 17, sees many of the problems mentioned by Siddall in his neighborhood and school, but doesn’t necessarily think police are the best solution.
Garcia is one of over 660,000 students that attend school within the LAUSD. He lives with his grandparents and younger sister in El Sereno, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles’ east side. Garcia has lived here his whole life, attending elementary and middle school nearby. Now he is a junior at Woodrow Wilson High School, also in El Sereno.
Every morning Garcia walks to school, but he doesn’t necessarily take the same route. His path depends on who’s hanging on the corners – some streets he avoids altogether. There are four gangs present in the area.
On the day that we spoke, a 15-year-old had been shot while riding in the passenger seat of a car. This happened around 6:45 a.m. not far from Woodrow Wilson. Garcia took a detour.
Despite the violence of the streets, Garcia doesn’t look for the protection of police. “I’ve been pulled over on the way to school, because of the way I look,” he said. He describes a time when a police passing by stopped and searched his gym bag on his way home from track practice. “It shows me how I’m being perceived,” he said of the random police search.
The nearest police station to Woodrow Wilson is right down the hill, essentially on campus, so police can be called upon fairly easily. While Garcia doesn’t mind when a cop or two arrive on campus to break up a fight that has gotten out of hand or when drugs or weapons are found, he thinks it is completely unnecessary for a larger group to show up. And when arrests are made, students should be read their Miranda Rights.
“Students don’t always know that they don’t have to talk – and sometimes what they say gets them in more trouble,” Garcia said.
He believes that it would be best if disputes were settled without students leaving campus in handcuffs. Through his role as a youth leader for the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition, Garcia is a fierce advocate for restorative justice programming in schools.
Budgeting for School Climate Goals
Restorative justice is a theory of discipline that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment, and is best accomplished when there is participation by all involved stakeholders. In 2013, the LAUSD adopted a “School Climate Bill of Rights” and set a goal of implementing restorative justice practices in every school within the district by 2020.
The bill of rights values “fair and consistent guidelines for implementing and developing a culture of discipline based on positive behavior interventions and away from punitive approaches that infringe on instructional time.” Over the years, the LAUSD has received praise for lowering suspension and expulsion rates throughout the district. However, the district is still far from meeting its 2020 goal of having restorative justice programming at every school, and still further from ingraining a culture of restorative justice in its schools.
Fully implementing restorative justice throughout the district will require additional funding — about $6.2 million, according to the BSS Coalition. The group presented the costs for successfully implementing restorative justice programs at 17 of the highest needs campuses throughout Los Angeles at April’s “Successful School Climate: Progressive Discipline and Safety Committee” meeting — a committee created by the LAUSD’s Board of Education to continually evaluate the progress in achieving the goals of the School Climate Bill of Rights.
The question remains, where will the district cut costs to invest further in restorative justice? One suggested line item: the School Police Department.
Even when the $10.81 million budget for restorative justice last year is added to the $30.84 million budgeted for student health support personnel, the $5.77 million for psychiatric social workers, and the $2.64 million for resources to support academic career and college counseling, the total doesn’t measure up to the $67.34 million budgeted for the Los Angeles School Police Department.
“If the LAUSD would direct funding from school police to restorative practices, more students would feel safer and more comfortable in our schools,” Garcia said. “They would have the mentality and needs [met] to graduate and attend college.”
Garcia is determined to be one of these students, becoming the first member of his family to obtain a college degree.
Kaitlyn Hennessy is a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. Previously, Kaitlyn was a middle school teacher and plans to bring her passion for empowering children and their communities into her nonprofit work. She wrote this story for the Media for Social Change course at USC.