The momentum from the protests surrounding the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the fight to abolish police have sparked the fire for Black Lives Matter LA to take a stand for a group it says should never be criminalized—students.
Bowing to pressure, the LA Board of Education voted to cut $25 million from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s police budget recently. Funds were redirected to support Black student achievement.
“If there’s any place police don’t belong, it’s in our schools,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA, on a recent This is Not a Drill Facebook Live session.
According to the motion, the money will be invested in hiring counselors, safety aides and social workers to address mental health, prioritizing schools with the highest population of Black students.
School police will be taken off-campus and out of uniform as well, until the Superintendent Task Force comes back with recommendations for an alternative safety plan, according to the finalized agenda.
The motion was amended to ensure the school district cannot contract the LAPD, LA County Sheriff’s deputies or other armed security agencies to patrol schools. In the event of an emergency, all schools will have access to community-based support to ensure students’ safety, the finalized motion states.
“When we divest, when we defund the police, we now have a whole new set of resources that can be used to make the world we imagine a reality,” said Abdullah in an interview with LA Downtown News.
Students and Black Lives Matter leaders consider this a partial victory. They still plan to fight to further defund the school police to improve the future for LA’s Black students by creating better access to health care, housing, mental health services and recreational programs to address universal needs.
“I’m going to embrace what the youth said: ‘We want all of it,’” Abdullah said. “We want to defund the police. We want new systems in place that actually bring safety to our community.”
This comes after a June 23 protest outside Los Angeles Unified School District’s headquarters. Thousands of students and Black Lives Matter protesters lined the streets demanding that police be removed from schools and defunded to protect the safety of Black and Latino students and end the school-to-prison pipeline.
A 2018 analysis from UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods project found that despite Black students only making 8% of the school district’s population, they account for 25% of arrests, citations and diversions by school police.
The school board voted 4-3 in favor of the motion. At the end of the meeting that lasted more than 10 hours, differences in opinion resulted in two board members—Richard Vladovic and Jackie Goldberg—yelling at each other over Zoom.
In an interview with the LA Downtown News, Abdullah accused dissenting board members of being “stuck in old ways of being.”
“They dismiss our youth, and I think that speaks to the fact that they probably shouldn’t be school board members if they’re not willing to listen to the students that they’re supposed to be creating policies for,” she said. “It’s really problematic.”
The school district’s police chief, Todd Chamberlain, expressed major concerns about the budget cuts before the motion’s vote, saying defunding by this much is “neglectful” for the safety of schools as well as the 65 officers who will be laid off.
“Unfortunately, I think with what we’re doing now with the limited amount of resources, you are going to have bare minimum service,” Chamberlain said. “You are not going to have the opportunity for intervention prevention.”
He resigned the next day after the budget cuts were made official.
“In good conscience, and in fear for safety and well-being of those I serve, I cannot support modifications to my position, the organization and most importantly, the community (students, staff and families) that I believe will be detrimental and potentially life-threatening,” Chamberlain wrote in a statement announcing his resignation.
On the Facebook Live session with Black Lives Matter LA, educational scholar and activist Dr. Pedro Noguera said schools shouldn’t have a police presence.
“What this represents is a correction,” Noguera said. “The real truth is that safety is essential, but safety is a byproduct of relationships, not of security systems,” Noguera said about the budget cut proposal.
The session also included Abdullah’s teenage daughter, Thandiwe, and BLMLA leader Joseph Williams, who explained how police in schools is a relatively new standard. They argued policing in school leads to trauma and low self-esteem for students.
Thandiwe said she graduated early to escape the harmful environment created by police in her school. Abdullah said her daughter has been “traumatized and terrorized by school police since the second grade.”
“My school was never welcoming for Black students,” Thandiwe said. “When these random searches would happen, every single time it was me. Every single time it was a Black student.”
Police in schools have become commonplace after the 1999 Columbine shooting.
Even though policemen are in schools to protect students from school shootings, the children’s safety isn’t guaranteed, Noguera said. He referenced the Stoneman Douglas massacre, where the school’s policeman hid from the gunman while 17 students and staff were killed.
Despite studies revealing that most school shootings happening in rural, suburban communities, Noguera noted that it’s urban schools that are most heavily policed.
“The disparities in schools serving affluent white kids—they don’t get treated like this,” he said. “They don’t get slammed on the ground. They don’t get arrested for marijuana. None of this happens. The parents of those kids know that.”
Williams was 13 when he was pushed out of school, which led him to spend time in group homes and juvenile detention centers. Many youth follow the same path, Williams said.
Williams described the discrepancy among schools across LA, saying how social workers break up fights in nicer schools, while fights in low-income, predominantly Black schools are met with police, pepper spray and K9s.
“What we’ve also seen is the criminalization of young people for incidents that were never seen as criminal before,” Noguera explained, saying that when he was younger, kids would get suspended for things like fights but never arrested and slammed to the ground.
The continued pressure from protesters has led cities like San Francisco and Oakland to eliminate police from their schools. By the end of the summer, Black Lives Matter organizers are hoping that the same progress can be made in LA, saying the momentum of the protests is the reason why the idea has even been considered.
“It’s not about school discipline,” Williams said. “This is another form of colonization and criminalization and systemic racism that folks are rising up against right now.”