LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles School Board's decision to remove school police officers from campus and replace them with staff trained in de-escalation strategies is facing both praise and criticism from the community.
The board voted to cut 133 school police positions including 70 sworn employees, 62 non-sworn employees and one support staff member. The staff reductions reduce the school police department's annual budget by $25 million. The board also approved a $36.5 million Black Student Achievement Plan.
Joseph Williams, the Director of Operations and Campaigns for "Students Deserve," and a member of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, is celebrating the decision.
"It's a huge victory. We're really excited about the resources that students will be able to have access to now and the support, the mental, social and emotional support that they will now be able to have access to now instead of cops," he said.
Williams talked about the various staff members that are expected to replace school police officers within LAUSD schools, and said it's something parents and families have been "fighting for decades."
"Number one, psychiatric social workers, positions like academic counselors to support students with their academics, positions like restorative justice coordinators to help bring restorative practices into the schools, positions like school climate coaches to help change school climate and culture. Meeting the kinds of academic and social and emotional needs that Black students have, and we know that a lot of that is because of the decades of disinvestment and underfunding that we've seen in our schools and also in our communities so it's a huge first step towards undoing some of the historic disinvestment and underfunding of Black students lives and education," he said.
Williams said when he was 13 years old, he had an incident with a school police officer in Virginia and believes this plan will help prevent that kind of issue.
"I was a student who had issues going on at home, struggling with housing insecurity, food insecurity and sometimes the ways that I would take that out would be getting into fights and I ended up getting charged with assault and battery and spending time in the juvenile detention center at 13 for things that were happening at school, so that's exactly what we're trying to prevent. Students need investments in support and in people on campus who are going to see them as human beings, who are going to see them and understand the situations that they're coming from and understand the trauma that they're trying to overcome," he said.
However, there is criticism from the community about the plan as well.
William Etue, the Vice President of the Los Angeles School Police Officers Association, believes the plan threatens safety at schools.
"For the Board to be so short-sighted and to say that politics is going to dictate the safety of all students and we're just not gonna look at the facts or look at ways to improve relationships between police officers and students on campus is just shocking and it's quite unbelievable to me," he said.
Etue said the Department recovers an estimated 30 firearms on campus each year and fields on average 130,000 calls each fiscal year. He said the officers also handle situations involving child abuse, break-ins, fights and school shootings.
"This would eliminate having officers on campus and then it's going to significantly reduce our response times in getting to location and areas of need where kids are going to be impacted by potentially dangerous situations. During the daytime hours, our officers are out early in the morning providing safe passages to students who are traveling to and from school, throughout different areas of the city. Once students are at school, our officers are responding to calls at different schools throughout the district, being problem solvers, addressing issues that may be impacting schools whether that may be criminal or just responding to calls to possibly handle someone who is disturbing that particular location and counsel them in releasing them," he said.
Prior to the vote, a survey was conducted and presented to board members, which collected responses from more than 35,000 LAUSD high school students, 6,600 parents and 2,300 certified and classified staff members on high school campuses. According to the survey, 51% of LAUSD students feel that having school police on campus makes the school safe, but only 35% of black students said they felt it made the school safe.
"Throughout my career, there's been numerous incidents that I know our officers have been involved in that have thwarted incidents from coming onto campus involving firearms and other significant issues," he said.
Etue believes officers on campus provide a safer environment.
"Often times, having an officer on campus provides a sense of security not only to students but to staff members and also acts as a preventative barrier from issues spilling over onto campus and impacting that tranquil learning environment that we're supposed to have within our educational institutions," he said.
Etue said he has concerns about safety when students return to campus.
"Part of our concern is there's a likelihood that animosities built up during this time. We all know students are online and maybe not having appropriate conversations and this level of animosity probably is rising among students. There is that factor of coming back into the normal fold of society if you will, off of COVID, back and interacting in person so there's that dynamic. We also have to look at the child abuse component. How many of these students are going to be returning and what are they going to be returning with as far as emotional and psychological trauma so we have to be very aware of that and be supportive in that way," he said.
Samantha Camerano is a Psychiatric Social Worker for LAUSD. She shared some of the concerns she had with the school board's decision.
"I'm a social worker and we're partnered up with law enforcement and I feel like everyone has been pushing for that, for this type of collaboration, this type of partnership, and I truly believe this is the ultimate dream team to uplift the communities so it's working against the vision that I have for the district," she said.
Camerano said the focus should be on mental health and training for implicit bias.
"I believe we need more training across the board. More training with social workers, more training with law enforcement, more training with administrators, staff. Mental health is what we need to address and we need to address implicit bias within ourselves, within myself, within my partners, within the teachers, everyone, everyone has it and we're not having that conversation. We need to keep everyone safe, especially our black and brown youth. We kind of all want the same thing. We want to hold everyone accountable. We want to make sure everyone feels safe, heard, especially our Black students so this is disappointing," Camerano said.
Camerano said as a social worker, she is at times faced with difficult situations.
"When I come onto the campus, sometimes I'm ignored or dismissed, but if there's law enforcement, they have respect and they treat us differently. During our responses, me and my colleagues sometimes come across impulsive, unstable students. We have cutters, jumpers, runners, pill ingesters just to name a few. I once came across a high school female attempting to take her own life. She had the belt tied tightly around her neck. I quickly realized my strength was overpowering. She was overpowering me and if it wasn't for the two officers who ran to my aid when I asked, screamed for help, things could have ended badly," she said.
However, LAUSD parents like Kahllid Abdulal-Alim, with three kids in the district, believe this is a step in the right direction. He is looking forward to the change within the district.
"For those who are not really connected and I understand their passion and concerns, but for those who are not connected, a lot of us have been doing the groundwork in the community trying to make the trip to and from school safe and then when they get to school, not to be intimidated by the presence of officers that really represent a different type of mentality," he said.
Williams said there are other tactics to prevent violence in schools.
"Bring restorative practices to schools so that if tension or fights happen, they're addressed in ways that minimize and deescalate the harm that students are facing rather than saying oh if you got in a fight, then you're a criminal and you deserve a sentence in a cell and all these other ways which black students, in particular, have been pushed out of LAUSD. There's actually no data anywhere that shows school police makes school safer in fact it shows police do the exact opposite especially for Black students and students of color," he said.
Williams said Black students have been disproportionately impacted by school policing tactics.
"Black students in LAUSD are only 8% of LAUSD but between 2014 and 2017, they were 30% of the arrests by LA school police. There has been a history of underfunding, of under-serving specifically Black students but all students of color, and especially low income students of color in California," he said.
Williams said activists will continue to fight for more change within schools.
"We're really encouraged and excited that the School Board made this decision and even more so we're gonna continue to push forward and reimagine what school safety looks like and fund Black futures," he said.
The Black Student Achievement Plan will allocate $4.4 million for curriculum and instruction, $2.4 million for teacher professional development, $2 million for school curriculum grants for schools to supplement their curriculum to make it more inclusive to Black students, $2 million for community partnerships to work with organizations that have success with Black students, $30.1 million for school climate wellness, $7.9 million for psychiatric social workers, $7.6 million for counselors, $2.9 million for school climate coaches, $6.5 million for restorative justice advisors, and $5.2 million for flexible climate grants.
Fifty-three schools have been identified for the Black Student Achievement Plan including Crenshaw, Dorsey, Fairfax, Gardena, Hamilton, Narbone, Venice and Westchester high schools.