Los Angeles Education Officials Reject Call to Slash School Police Budget

Hundreds of protesters gather at a rally in Los Angeles calling on education officials to adopt a proposal to slash the school district’s police budget by 90% over the next three years. (Courthouse News photo / Martin Macias Jr. )

LOS ANGELES (CN) — In a contentious hearing Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District board rejected multiple police-reform proposals, including a study into whether the second largest school district in the country still needs police and a plan that would have cut the district’s police department budget by 90% over three years.

After an 11-hour hearing, the Board of Education — which oversees a district serving more than 600,000 students — failed to agree on a path forward. 

For weeks, black students in LAUSD, their parents and Black Lives Matter-LA members have called on the Board of Education to enact policing reforms as mass protests against police violence swept the nation.

Students Deserve, an LAUSD student-led organization, demanded the board reduce funding for the LA School Police Department, which its members claim contributes to a learning environment that is anti-black and detrimental to student achievement.

The $70 million budget for the nearly 470-member school police force — the largest in the nation — makes up about 1% of the school district’s roughly $8 billion budget, according to district data.

Students in and outside the board meeting voiced their opposition to having LASPD officers patrol their campuses.

LAUSD graduate and former Board of Education student member Tyler Okeke said at the hearing officials should acknowledge the fear of police expressed by students and their families. 

“We’re not interested in reexamining or reimagining police in our schools,” Okeke said. “We think they have no productive role in our schools. No amount of de-escalation training changes the need that students need counselors not handcuffs.”

Speakers at a rally outside the meeting urged the panel to support board member Mónica Garcia’s motion to slash next school year’s police budget by 50% and eventually by at least 90% total by the 2023–24 term.

Garcia said before the vote her proposal would free up funds for more health services for students.

“Removing police is not going to solve the problem of underfunding of schools or systemic racism,” Garcia said at the hearing. “This is a chance to transition away from police to another safety strategy.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president-elect of United Teachers of Los Angeles — the labor union representing LAUSD educators — urged board members to consider the comprehensiveness of students’ demands.

“When they spoke about random police searches they were not believed. When they spoke about pepper spray they were not believed,” Myart-Cruz said regarding past student advocacy. “Now we’re standing here today trying to re-envision something for our youth. Our students are not suspects.”

But the seven-member board voted down Garcia’s proposal, with some members saying it jeopardizes the district’s ability to respond effectively to any future disasters.

The panel also rejected board member Jackie Goldberg’s proposal to implement a hiring freeze at the school police department — amounting to an estimated $20 million budget cut — and to remove police from school campuses while launching a study on whether police are needed at schools.

LASPD Chief Todd Chamberlain told the board he acknowledges nationwide calls for police reform but that school police play a critical role in keeping campuses safe. 

“If you take away police, what you’re gonna have, you’re still going to have people victimized,” Chamberlain said. “You’ll still have crime and still have an environment that’s not safe.”

Board member George McKenna accused student activists of repeating inaccurate talking points from “outside” groups and painting an inaccurate portrayal of police.

McKenna, a former school principal in the district also said students have exaggerated accounts of experiencing police violence on their campuses. 

“Police are being unfairly demonized,” McKenna said. “I can tell you now school police are essential.”

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said at the hearing he’s sympathetic to calls for changing the role of police in schools but will not immediately support the demand to eliminate policing from campuses.

“Those looking for a simple answer will be disappointed because I don’t think one exists,” Beutner told the board. “If the real objective of this conversation is to look at systemic bias, we will have to take a broader perspective because this is about more than school police.”

The board’s inaction Tuesday largely leaves the issue to be addressed by a taskforce set up by Beutner, which is slated to deliver its report next month.

Beutner said last week he will recommend the board ban LASPD officers from firing pepper spray at students and using the carotid holds on them.

Garcia’s proposal acknowledged the Black Lives Matter movement was the impetus for her motion and also cited a 2018 University of California, Los Angeles, study that found black students at LAUSD were disproportionately affected by over-policing.

The Million Dollar Hoods Project by UCLA found that black youth accounted for 25% of all arrests but only 8% of enrolled students, according to 2014–2017 data.

A Students Deserve survey released last week of current and former students in the district found 86% supported their demand and that almost half had experienced random police searches in school.

LAUSD graduate Jorge Hernandez told the board their vote should not be influenced by the nationwide protests against police violence.

“If you want to solve the crisis, look deep,” Hernandez said in the hearing. “Don’t look to low-hanging fruit in the middle of a political crisis.”

Susan Martinez, a mental health counselor for the district, urged the board to maintain officers’ role as co-responders to student crises.

“We need more mental health but not in the absence of safety,” Martinez said. “I’m asking for reform not to eliminate.”

Martinez told Courthouse News some schools have resisted having police respond to health crises but that mental health professionals ultimately make the call on whether to hospitalize students. 

“We don’t hospitalize students when there isn’t a need there,” Martinez said. 

School district police officers and their supporters at the meeting frequently painted an image of a city in the grips of gang violence and school shootings.

“Defunding our department is not the solution,” said a LASPD sergeant. “We need safety for our youth, otherwise they’ll end up drugged up.”

Gil Gamez, president of the LA School Police Association, told the board removing police from schools could put student’s lives in danger.

“You guys are all good people, you do not deserve to have blood on your hands,” Gamez said.

LASPD officer David Hernandez told the board school shootings and gang violence are actively prevented by campus police. 

“We are ready to give our lives to protect students,” Hernandez said. “I pray we never need guns in school. But we still have evil out there.”

With Garcia, Goldberg and McKenna’s proposals failing, the board now faces an uncertain path.

Goldberg said she was disheartened that all motions failed and that the board must address students’ legitimate concerns about police violence.

“To some kids, the police uniform is a sign of safety. To others, the police uniform is a symbol of the harassment that is a common feature for kids in Southern California,” Goldberg said. “It didn’t just start now. We have a real problem in policing.”

The board will take up discussion on the upcoming school year’s budget during next week’s meeting but did not indicate when it would revisit the issue of school police.

Sarah Djato, a student at Susan Miller Dorsey High School and a member of Students Deserve, said, “I am mad that LAUSD did not do anything about the ways that black students are being policed. You have a black youth-led movement, and you haven’t made the time to truly understand our data or where we are coming from.”

Joseph Williams of Black Lives Matter-LA blasted the board’s inaction.

“It’s shameful that board members who make statements or pass motions about making black lives matter in schools wouldn’t take action to do just that. They squandered this opportunity to do the right thing,” he said.

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