Scrap school police and add counselors and academic help for Black students, coalition says



Community and student activists on Tuesday relaunched a campaign to eliminate the Los Angeles School Police Department, calling instead for expansion of mental health and academic programs, college and career counseling and job and life-skills training — focusing especially on the needs of Black students.

The call from a coalition of organizations puts renewed pressure on Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Alberto Carvalho as he also confronts tense labor negotiations and pushes forward with his own expensive agenda for academic progress.

Meanwhile, a group of Latino parents on Tuesday spoke out in support of school police — a counterpoint of the message delivered with passion by about 150 protesters on the steps of Mann UCLA Community School in South Los Angeles.

“We’ve been fighting the school-to-prison pipeline for decades,” said Amir Whitaker, senior policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “And this fight to remove school police is a part of it.”

School districts speak of helping students with trauma, he told those assembled, “yet we know school police are a part of that trauma for so many students, for so many communities. ... I’ve represented students who are arrested for food fights or just other minor things that now set them on a path for criminalization, that changed the rest of their life, that changed their whole life trajectory.”

While the focus was school police, the coalition also put forward an agenda that, by its own estimate, would cost more than $800 million per year. In that equation, redirecting the funding for school police — about $52 million a year — would be like a down payment.

Among the agenda items: placing at least one school climate counselor and one nurse at every campus, providing college and mental health counselors at ratios recommended by experts and offering more “wraparound” services at community schools to help families with life challenges.

The recommendations, laid out in a report released Tuesday, also include a call for up to $651 million for schools to hire local groups and partners to meet needs.

The coalition supporting the demands includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Brothers Sons Selves Coalition, Community Coalition, Inner City Struggle, Reclaim Our Schools Los Angeles, Students Deserve and United Teachers Los Angeles.

In 2020, the Los Angeles Board of Education cut school police funding by 35%and discontinued the stationing of an officer at each high school and middle school. These actions came in the wake of protests over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. But the board has resisted further cuts.

The report by coalition leaders and academics from UCLA updates a plan of action for the nation’s second-largest school system that was released about two years ago.

Unifying themes include the elimination of school police and a focus on the needs of Black students — justified, according to the authors, by the nation’s history of racism and the school district’s own history of racist practices, such as not providing culturally relevant education to Black students or ensuring that they receive academic opportunities comparable to other students. Chief among the racist policies, the report said, is the existence of a school police department.

The report describes overwhelming support for its policies among students, parents, teachers and community members, based largely on focus groups assembled from 200 participants in a town hall gathering.

Carvalho did not respond directly, but the school district issued a statement.

“It is imperative to discuss the role of school police and other entities in the Los Angeles Unified community,” the statement said. “We will continue having this conversation with students, families, employees and community leaders to find the appropriate balance in schools. The basis of this conversation is to determine what services are provided that both protect and support students, of which Los Angeles Unified has many.”

The issue is not for the school district alone, the statement said: “This is a Los Angeles conversation. We must ensure that all spaces students occupy are safe. That means the streets they walk are safe pathways, the parks our students play in are free from drugs and opioids and the neighborhoods our students live in are safe and secure.

Carvalho’s school safety planning is complicated by a divided Board of Education.

Board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin appeared at the Tuesday rally and joined the call to defund school police.

“You heard from the voices that matter most: our young people, our families, our educators, our community partners,” Franklin said. “And now it’s time for the board to listen.

“We know our students need nurturing, not policing,” she added.

Two board members with experience as school principals — George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson — have supported retaining the police force.

In previous interviews and public appearances, Carvalho has cited the district’s fall 2020 survey that indicated relatively strong support for school police — but there were also large numbers of respondents without strong opinions. The survey included responses from 35,467 10th- through 12th-grade students; 6,639 parents of high schoolers; and 2,348 high school staff members.

About 53% of students said they feel safer when a school police officer is on campus; 13% said they did not. About 52% said they believe police treat students with respect; 9% said they did not. Throughout the survey, many expressed no opinion or said they did not know.

Among Black students, 35% said having a school police presence on campus makes them feel safe, 20% said it did not make them feel safe, and 45% did not know or did not respond.

Support for school police was higher among school staff and higher still among parents.

In the opening weeks of the school year, parents would frequently stress to Carvalho their support of school police, and he would agree. The massacre of 21 people at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, was top of mind for many. At the time, he said, his safety plan was imminent, but he has yet to release it.

Weeks later, after the death of a student at Bernstein High School due to a fentanyl overdose, Carvalho made clear that the response would include law enforcement but said counseling, education, mental health support and other preventive measures would be just as important.

Meanwhile, the group Our Voice: Communities for Quality Education on Tuesday expressed support for school police.

“Our Voice parents say that rather than feel criminalized by school police, they and their children feel reassured to have officers on and around school campuses,” said the group’s statement, provided by coordinator Evelyn Aleman. “Latinos comprise 74% of the district’s families, yet their voices in conversations around policy and funding are often unheard.”

Los Angeles School Police Department Chief Steven Zipperman said recently that school police have evolved, especially in L.A., to support the mission of education. Officers in plainclothes have become part of counseling teams that provide support to students who have expressed thoughts of violence or suicide. Zipperman said the department also has embraced practices to limit arrests and keep students in school and out of the criminal justice system.

The report from the coalition acknowledged some improvement but said this resulted entirely from outside pressure and was “not grounded in a moral decision on behalf of LASPD to try and reduce harm to youth.”