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Why Los Angeles Schools Could Expel Campus Police

Protests over the killing of George Floyd have hastened teachers union calls to remove police from Los Angeles’ public school campuses.




Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the board of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) voted overwhelmingly to encourage a process that would lead to the diversion of  money currently spent on the Los Angeles School Police Department toward mental health counselors and academic counselors. The school police department accounts for approximately $70 million of the district’s nearly $8 billion budget.

Capital & Main spoke with Cecily Myart-Cruz, the incoming president of UTLA, which represents about 30,000 teachers, nurses, counselors and other staff in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Myart-Cruz said that nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd and calls to defund the Los Angeles Police Department hastened the board’s vote, but that the movement to remove school police has been building for more than a year.

Capital & Main: What’s the history behind the movement to defund school police?

Cecily Myart-Cruz: Students and key leaders from Students Deserve have been speaking for over a year and a half [for] what you would call an invest/divest model. They would like to divest from the school police but invest in mental health supports. Psychiatric social workers, psychologists, counselors. That’s what the students have been saying that they actually want and need at the school.

What specifically have students been upset about?

There have been many instances where school police and/or LAPD have come onto campus with dogs and pepper sprayed kids. A fight breaks out and their way of deescalating? Pepper spraying kids. I don’t know if you know, but as far as the pepper spraying happening, pepper spray is not allowed at juvenile detention centers. Because it’s not allowed at juvenile detention centers makes you wonder what the heck is it doing on our LAUSD campuses? The students have been organizing ending the pepper spray in schools. We’ve taken an organizational position on that as well.

Students have been profiled at school sites and I think it [also] stems from that. When we treat schools like prisons. Where you have folks, black students primarily, brown students, Muslim and LGBTQ+ youth that were being targeted in what are called random searches, where we know they’re not random. [Police searches ] were finding hand sanitizer, markers, correction fluid, Wite-Out, things like that. They did not find any weapons at all.

These searches were just going on and on and on, and the students led a complete pushback, really galvanizing the city. We picked it up as a part of our bargaining for the common good demands when we went on strike. That was one of the things that we were able to win. Just a rolling back of random searches. On June 18th of last year the district decided to eliminate random searches.

Do we know what or who will take the place of police to deescalate problems and keep campuses safe?

We need actual on the ground resources around mental health support. And those are fundamentally different than having school police on campus. Folks think, “Well, it’s going to make the kids safer” — it really doesn’t. Because when you hear the stories of kids and students . . .  it feels like prison. As a middle school teacher, I know having the school police on the school campus doesn’t set the type of precedent that we want to see. Especially in the wake of COVID-19, [which] really lays bare all the inequities that happen, especially in the black and brown communities.

I’m a product of L.A. Unified. I graduated from L.A. Unified. I can’t even remember when school policing came into effect in L.A. Unified. We did not have plainclothes folks on campus. We did not have school police on our campus [when] I graduated in 1990.

We had altercations or fights on campus, but we had actually community advisers. They wore these big yellow jackets. They were people from the community that we knew that would be on campus. They deescalated stuff. They met you at the gate in the morning, spoke to you, looked you in the eyes, said, “Make sure you have a great day.” But then they were also walking around the campus and they had a camaraderie with the kids. The kids respected them.

You said that back in the day there were community advisors in schools, not cops. Is that something you want to go back to?

I think all of these issues are up for discussion to actually see what the campuses need. If you had more campus aides on campus being able to help out, you’d have psychiatric social worker[s and] psychologists, you’d have those supports. We need those kinds of supports.

And we need to have schools that are not like prisons. I spoke about COVID really laying bare inequities. I would offer up places like Palisades — I can guarantee you they don’t have the police presence on campus that you would [see] if you were at Dorsey High School. You drive up to Dorsey High School off of Farmdale and Obama Boulevard, you’re going to have two, three, four police cars just stationed there. You’re going to have Los Angeles School Police walking around. There is a difference.

Regarding COVID-19, do we know what schools will look like for the next school year?

It’s been very fluid. And the superintendent has said that he wants to go based on science. I think a lot of things have been floated around as to what things are going to look like, what school is to look like. I think there are probably hybrid models … But all of that has to be bargained. The superintendent can say XYZ, but UTLA has to be at the table in order to bargain that.

California Teachers Association, as well as California Federation of Teachers, both have representatives that sit on the reopening meetings. [Disclosure: CTA and CFT are financial supporters of this website.] But [there are ] also talks with the governor around the budget. You can not balance the budget on the backs of students. You just cannot do that.

We know there’s a state budget crisis, while schools will need even more money to be protected from COVID-19 transmission. What’s the latest on the budget?

While the governor, I know, has many competing interests and everybody wants their slice of the pie, schools have been defunded for decades. How dare we, California, as the fifth-largest economy in the world, not stand up for students right now? It is absolutely abhorrent to me that there should be any cuts to any services that go to our students.

Cecily Myart-Cruz takes office as UTLA president July 1. A nationwide movement to eliminate school police is growing, with students in Massachusetts and Arizona, along with school boards in the San Francisco Bay Area, also demanding removal of school police officers.

Copyright 2020 Capital & Main

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