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Students Deserve and the fight to fully defund L.A. school police

Art by Anika Norton

“Defund the school police! Defund the school police!” was the rallying cry that students, teachers, parents, volunteers, and more yelled harmoniously through St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on February 26, 2022, where headliners like Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and various students including Dorsey junior Kyla Payne spoke about the goals and mission of this fight. Students Deserve high school chapters from across the Los Angeles School District, including Eagle Rock Jr./Sr. High School, attended this history-making meeting. The coalition focused on the kick-off of their current button campaign, buttons you might have seen pinned on backpacks and bags throughout ERHS. But besides engaging drawings by student artists, they also tout the message, “Fully defund L.A. school police.” And it’s a message that has been spreading for more than two years now.

Students Deserve, a grassroots organization that upholds the student voice in the Los Unified School District, Black Lives Matter-LA, and Brothers, Sons, Selves, lead this mission to a momentous victory that went into action in February of 2021. According to Students Deserve, 25 million dollars was divested from LASPD forces, and an additional “13 million dollars in funds for support staff for students” will be invested in people like counselors, psychiatric social workers, like Eagle Rock’s Ms. Roman, and the expansion of Ethnic Studies programs. The success also entails a complete ban on any school police from using chemical weapons, like pepper spray, and no cops will be stationed on any high school campus. (Related: ‘LA school police defunded: a victory for Students Deserve’.) But these organizations don’t want to stop there. They now call for fully defunding the Los Angeles school police.

Patrisse Cullors speaking at the February 26 coalition. Image by Isobel McBride

Why Fully Defund L.A. School Police?

“We’re doing this to support Black students in and out of school,” says Mau Trejo, a staff member of Students Deserve on March 10 during the monthly general assembly. Their comment is one of the various reasons why so many people are coming together for this cause. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, “school districts too often rely on police officers to handle minor violations, who then frequently mishandle the situation, resulting in harmful consequences for students and families.” This worrying trend results in the over-criminalization of students and disproportionally so of low-income students of color. School officials are more likely to refer incidents regarding students of color to the police than those involving white students: Native American students are 3.4 times more likely, Black students are 2.7 times more likely, and Hawian/Pacific Islander students are 1.4 times more likely to be referred to the police.

The ACLU of Northern California also states that from 2005 to 2016 alone, 30,000 students were arrested in the San Bernardino Unified School District. These arrests were predominantly the results of minor violations like graffiti and failure to abide by daytime curfews. This type of action directly feeds the school-to-prison pipeline, a topic briefly discussed in the Students Deserve general assembly of March 10, 2022. Unmistakably, arrest negatively impacts a student’s life both in the present and future, not to mention their mental health. A single arrest hinders the ability to secure employment as employers routinely check criminal status. Other studies have proven that incarceration during high school significantly increases a high schooler’s likelihood to drop out. A considerable number of advocates for this movement also state how police in schools create an unhealthy environment for learning. It creates the intention that schools view students as suspects and criminals instead of the learners that they are.

Romy Griego, a ninth-grader at ERHS, is a pivotal member of its Students Deserve chapter and an avid participant in the entire campaign. Her captivating charisma and drive make her the powerful activist she is today. And it was just sixth grade when she fully got involved with the organization as they fought to end random searches. Romy, along with ERHS senior Griffin Joseph, has taken charge of setting up and guiding the Eagle Rock chapter. But as Romy puts it, “Students Deserve is a horizontal leadership organization where there’s not one specific person that’s supposed to be a leader.”

Students Deserve logo. Image by Students Deserve

Currently, LASPD has a 52 million dollar budget. And in many cases, like Eagle Rock Jr. Sr. High School, there aren’t any police stationed on campus (the February 2021 victory made it so that no cops are to be stationed on any high school campus). Money towards an unused cause is pointless. People like Romy are frustrated that there is valuable money going to school police when they’re not even present. “They’re not doing anything,” Romy says, “school police are not stationed at school.” That’s why Students Deserve and their allies push for a sustainable reclamation of that money to fund the students, by the students. The Black Student Achievement Plan is an example of just that. According to Romy, BSAP will transfer this unused money to support “black youth and invest in their futures.” “We want to fully abolish LASPD and get that money back into schools,” Romy elucidates passionately.

Recently Romy was asked to facilitate the aforementioned March 10 general assembly, a meeting where all of the school chapters of Students Deserve talk about the next steps as an organization, what’s coming up, and the next plans of action. In this most recent meeting, they further discussed and reflected upon the button campaign. So far they have passed out more than 25,000 buttons out of the 30,000 they produced over 75 different schools. ERHS alone passed out 500 in just three days.

One of the campaign buttons. Image by Sofia Casias

But this win hasn’t arrived without setbacks. Some students mentioned how they were not allowed to pass out buttons due to the school administrators saying that they have to sign paperwork and get the approval for passing out the items. Despite not being able to cite any school policy or support of this prohibition, students were reprimanded. As a result, reports of this violation of student speech were sent to the American Civil Liberties Union who later responded in an in-depth letter. In short, ACLU advised to “send guidance immediately to every LAUSD school site administrator making clear that students may (1) distribute buttons expressing their position on school police on campus during non-instructional time and (2) freely wear such buttons to display their political beliefs throughout the school day.”

(Trigger Warning: School Shootings Mentioned)

The Other Side

On April 20, 1999, America witnessed the deadliest school shooting in US history at the time, the Columbine High School massacre. This heartbreaking event was one of 12 school shootings committed by students that ranged from 1996 to 1999. These tragedies incited reasonable fear among parents, students, teachers, and communities alike, prompting increased funding for safety everywhere. In schools' case, that means police. To many, the police are a symbol of safety, an easy answer to soothe fears. According to the Vox article, Cops at the schoolyard gate, “In October 1998, just months before the shooting at Columbine, Congress had already voted to allocate funding for the COPS in Schools grants program.” COPS or Community Oriented Policing Services was an installment part of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that was passed through the Clinton Administration. It is a component of the U.S. Department of Justice responsible for progressing community policing by the nation’s state, local, territorial, and tribal law enforcement agencies through the provision of information and grants. Since its enactment in 1994, the COPS Office has invested more than $14 billion to help advance community policing.

In April 1999, days after the Columbine High School shooting, President Bill Clinton promised a $70 million fund from the COPS office to invest an additional 600 police officers in schools across the country. And between 1999 and 2005, $750 million in grants to more than 3,000 law enforcement agencies to hire SROs (School Resource Officers) was awarded by COPS in Schools. SROs, sworn-in law enforcement officers with arrest powers, are nearly all armed (about 91 percent according to federal data). School shootings explain this sudden increase in funding for police in schools, but they do not explain why most school police officers are stationed in schools that serve mostly Black and Latinx students. “Although the vast majority of the school-based shootings in the 1990s — and again in 2012 — occurred in primarily white suburban schools, school resource officers are more likely to be assigned to schools serving mostly students of color,” Cops at the schoolyard gate states.

Poster from the February 26 coalition. Image by Isobel McBride

Founded on the notion that police create a safer environment, many people who oppose the defunding of school police wonder who will keep students safe. Yet, in a 2018 survey, 25 percent of school police indicated that they had no experience with youth before working in schools. Sixty-three percent reported they had never been trained on the teen brain; 61 percent had never been trained on child trauma, and 46 percent had never been trained to work with special education students. School police do not have the adequate amount of training to work with children and adolescents properly. Without this vital instruction, the police end up following a common pattern of detaining, investigating, interrogating, and sometimes arresting. As seen in viral videos, some even go as far as to react with force. Students Deserve and their allies want to reimagine safety without police. “[We want] restorative justice, not cops,” Trejo says, “counselors not cops.” The campaign proposes the implementation of social workers, counselors, PSWs, and school climate coaches, among others, trained to respond to crises in school and overall work with students in a healthier fashion.

(End of Trigger Warning)

Future Action

One of the biggest obstacles to tackle is to convince the LAUSD school board to progress and agree upon this plan. Students Deserve needs four out of the seven boards members to pass fully defunding school police and adopt the Black Student Achievement Plan. Mainly student-led meetings have taken place with the board members to convince and bring to light issues that needed to be addressed. So far, Tanya Ortiz Franklin of Board District 7 has agreed to vote yes as well as Kelly Gonez, President of the Board of Education and representative of Board District 6. Mónica García, Nick Melvoin, and Jackie Goldberg, Eagle Rock’s district representative, are still on the fence. “[The board members] have to walk the line between students and parents,” Griffin Joseph of Eagle Rock’s Students Deserve said as many parents find security with school police. Scott Schmerelson, who tends to support the conservative sides, and George McKenna, who even asked to extend student searches, are against the goal to defund Los Angeles school police.

Most recently, on April 5, 2022, students from across five out of seven districts spoke directly to LAUSD School Board members on the need to fully defund school police. And Eagle Rock’s very own Romy Griego was one of them. “I would think that as elected representatives you would want to be able to say you didn’t spend $200 million on school police during my four years at high school,” she told the board members, “I would think you would like to say that you slashed that funding, expanded funding for Black students and gave all the students the nurture and support they want and need.” A call to reimagine the spending of this money was one of the main points these students pressured. Kyla Payne and Lakell White, both students at Dorsey and Students Deserve leaders also powerfully spoke to the board. Describing the effects of having police off-campus, White said “...I didn’t have the anxiety about a cop hovering over me and watching my every move because they see the melanin in my skin as a weapon.”

Romy Griego speaking to the LAUSD Board of Education. Image via Los Angeles Students Deserve Instagram page

In May and June of 2022, Students Deserve and their allies plan to go on the streets and spread the message. On June 28, they will be going back to the LAUSD Board of Education for their final meeting where they will discuss budgeting, details, and ultimately, the end decision.

If you would like to participate in this monumental event, there are Students Deserve meetings in Ms. Hernadez’s room (301) on Fridays at lunch. The participants of this campaign are tirelessly working to achieve their fight to fully defund the Los Angeles school police. And in the words of Patrisse Cullors during the February 26 coalition, “We are winning.”

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