LA teachers union board calls to defund school police

The union has joined education leaders in several U.S. cities who have weakened ties to law enforcement

Ariella Plachta
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — The board of directors for the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles union announced a 35-2 vote late last week to “eliminate the LA school police budget and redirect those funds” to community schools with higher numbers of black students and social supports like mental health workers and counselors, according to a union spokesperson.

The move requires approval from the union’s 250-member house of representatives before becoming an official position. Still, the announcement drew immediate opposition from school police union representatives — one of whom said the teachers union’s position, if realized, would put students at risk — and is sure to spark intense debate over school safety from parents, teachers and district leaders.

LAUSD and LASPD officials declined to comment on the UTLA vote to defund the department.

By taking that initial step alongside Black Lives Matter organizers, UTLA joined education leaders in several U.S. cities who have weakened ties to law enforcement amid a national movement against police violence sparked by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd. Floyd, a black man, died in Minneapolis on May 25 when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes.

The move also positions the teachers union in direct opposition to another LAUSD union, setting up a potential clash between labor groups as the district and the Board of Education work on next fiscal year’s budget.

“We’re a democratic union so this is going to go through a process,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. “But our board of directors said by a vote of 35-2 that we should take money out of the school police department and put it directly into mental health support and counselors.”

The LASPD budget, Caputo-Pearl said, could support some 800 counselors.

“We must dismantle white supremacy. We must dismantle racial capitalism,” said incoming President Cecily Myart-Cruz. “And definitely, we must defund the police and bring in the mental health services our students need.”

For his part, President of the school police union Gil Gamez said that he agrees with protesters about Floyd’s death and believes institutional racism is a problem. But he pushed back against defunding police.

Unlike the school districts that have cut ties with city law enforcement in Minneapolis, Chicago and Portland in recent days, the school police in Los Angeles is an independent department — one of the largest in the country. It currently employs some 350 sworn officers. Before campuses closed in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, LA Unified high schools and every third middle school had a full-time officer on campus.

Education equity advocates have long called for an end to permanent police presence at schools, despite an influx of investments in campus public safety in an era of school shootings. But recent nationwide protests against police brutality and demands to defund the LASPD have reinvigorated those discussions at the district over the past several days.

In the 2019-20 academic year, LAUSD spent $63 million on school police, out of a more than $7 billion budget. Calls to slash the police budget, meanwhile, come amid projected budget cuts for California school districts from revenue losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Supporters of police downsizing, including the Southern California arm of ACLU, say police on campus ultimately do more harm than good to students by over-criminalizing them for minor violations and making them feel like suspects — especially low-income students of color.

An analysis of LASP data compiled in part by UCLA researchers found that black youth comprised 25% of total arrests, citations, and diversions from 2014-17, despite representing less than 9% of the student population. LASPD has disputed several findings in the report.

ACLU staff attorney Amir Whitaker said if school shooting occurs, municipal police will be there to respond. But the day-to-day interaction with police officers on campus does more harm than good.

“They can get arrested for throwing a stapler, or just doing things that if the police weren’t there, wouldn’t be a crime,” he said. “So even the presence of police creates a problem where teachers and administrators call police more because it becomes a tool in their toolbox rather than other developmentally appropriate ways to respond.”

But Gamez said the presence of campus officers is needed to keep peace on campuses by deescalating conflict and providing safety — especially with the ever-present threat of mass shootings. Administrators and parents, he said, are often the ones calling for police action.

“I’m not trained in homicide, I’m trained in school and school cultures,” he said, adding that many officers are district graduates. “UTLA is putting their students at risk, their own members at risk. Everyone, from the principal to the custodian. They say police officers (are) detrimental to mental and emotional well being, but it’s to the contrary.”

Discussions about defunding police in school districts, though, have also underscored the challenges of alternative safety plans. A 2019 National Center for Education Statistics report found that about 66% of U.S. public schools in 2017-18 reported at least one physical attack or fight on campus without a weapon; 3% of schools reported an attack with a weapon.

In the two decades since the 1999 massacre at Colombine High School, marked by multiple other school shootings, public concern about student safety and demands for new safety measures has surged. Parents are among the strongest voices advocating for armed personnel at school, calls that reignited after the 2018 shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas.

The issue of armed police officers on public school campuses will likely spark heated debate in the coming weeks among leaders of the nation’s second largest district, teachers and parents as the district gears up to approve its yearly budget.

William Etue, vice president of the school police union, said he considered funding of the LASP force to be “a bargain.”

“When we look at nearly an 8 billion dollar budget, we’re spending less than 1% on people that run toward danger if there’s ever an issue to arise and keep kids safe,” he said. “That breaks down to anywhere between $85 and $95 per student per year to have a police officer on campus.”

In response to UTLA’s Friday, June 5, vote, several thousand parents and others signed an online petition against the move. That petition was sent to school board members and said it would “put OUR children at risk.”

“I sleep well at night knowing we have the Los Angeles School Police Department in OUR schools,” the petition read.

Abby Bailes, a parent of four LAUSD students in the northwest San Fernando Valley, said she supports the principle of “Black Lives Matter” but objects to the idea of defunding police departments, whether it be LAPD or LASP.

“It doesn’t make common sense or have popular support,” she said. “If anything, there should be additional funding to improve police racial bias training, and I’m all for prosecuting police who commit crimes.”

But other parents, like Sylmar neighborhood council President Andres Rubalcavez, see plenty of sense in transferring police budgets to social services in a time of both budget cuts and school shootings.

“To create a safe community, you don’t need too much policing. Yes, it’s always great to have somebody like an officer there just in case as a safety precaution,” he said. “But honestly I feel that the school shootings wouldn’t happen if there was more involvement prior. I’d rather funds go back to students, for arts and social emotional learning.”

Sarah Djato, the rising Dorsey High School senior, said that as long as police officers are on her campus, she’ll do her best to stay away from them.

“I don’t think people differentiate between school police and police,” she said. “They all represent the same danger.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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