LAUSD board cuts $25 million from school police, puts it toward hiring mental health workers

The LAUSD board voted on Tuesday night to cut $25 million from the school police budget. That’s a 35% decrease to a department that employs more than 450 officers. 

LAUSD students and community activists have accused school officers of over-policing Black and Brown students, and have called for LAUSD to allocate that money to programs instead of police. 

KCRW speaks with Elianny Edwards, a researcher at the Black Male Institute at UCLA, and an author of “Keeping Students Safe in Los Angeles,” a report on incidents within LAUSD; plus Sonali Kohli, education reporter at The LA Times.

KCRW: How contentious was the decision to cut funding from the school police? 

Sonali Kohli: “It was pretty contentious because it’s been ongoing for a while. Advocates have been fighting for more than 15 years to work toward eliminating the school police department. And in the last few weeks have gained a lot of traction as there have been protests worldwide.

Last week, [board member] Monica Garcia introduced a resolution that would by 2023-24 defund the school police budget by 90%. That failed. She brought back a different motion this week, which was a budget amendment for a 50% cut. That did not have enough support, but the fourth board member, really kind of the swing vote, suggested $25 million plus some other changes. And so that's what the compromise ended up being.”

Twenty-five million is a fraction of the LAUSD’s multi-billion dollar budget, right?

Sonali Kohli: “Yes, so they also passed their budget last night, which is in the vicinity of $8 billion. … And so $25 million is a fraction. 

It is, however, a big percentage of the school police budget. School police have a $70 million budget. So $25 million is a pretty big chunk of that. It will have big impacts on what police can do in the district.”

How does this affect what the police will do?

Elianny Edwards: “Hopefully it speaks a little bit more to what the district will do, as opposed to what the police will do in terms of helping to support students and their overall safety. 

So one of the things we focused on with our report was really highlighting the need for increased mental health providers. And that was something that really came out in the discussion of the resolution yesterday. So what we're hoping is to see some more mental health care providers, some more counselors, some more community organizations going into schools, and helping fill those gaps that quite frankly, police are just not able to do.”

Will the $25 million go toward having more mental health care providers, counselors, and community organizations at schools?

Sonali Kohli: “Yes, it's supposed to go immediately toward hiring more psychiatric social workers (who are kind of mental health workers), and counselors, and campus aids, who are all staff on campuses who people say they need a lot more. 

And it's supposed to go toward schools with the highest concentration of African American students first.”

One approved provision puts the officers out of uniforms. Why is that a big deal?

Elianny Edwards: “When we talk about Black students’ feelings of safety in school, intimidation and just trauma from encountering police, even in the community, is something that then resurfaces when they go to school, and they see police officers in uniforms. 

I think a lot of times, the conversation was happening as if school police was [sic] an isolation of the community. And the reality is that students are seeing and encountering and interacting with police on their way to school — to then only continuously be policed while they're in school. 

So I think taking them out of uniform is something that will hopefully help reduce some of the intimidation that comes with it, and helps to create  … more of a comforting environment for students.”

Why are there police officers on campuses at all?

Elianny Edwards: “One of the things that came out in our report is that a lot of the incidents that are happening in schools don't necessitate intervention from police, which is one of the reasons that we're advocating for police to not be in school. … Some of the most pressing incidents we're seeing are best handled by other people. There isn't a job at a school that requires a police officer.”

The school board members who voted against cutting the money, what did they say about the need for police on campuses?

Sonali Kohli: “The three members of the school board who are against cutting police all were longtime school administrators. They haven't been school principals for a while, but they did all serve in schools for a long time. 

… The thing that everyone is most afraid of (right?) is mass shootings or school shootings. Those are very rare, but they do happen, and they're worried about them. And then general safety issues both involving students and not involving students. 

So the police chief also spoke during the meeting, and talked about the types of things that police would not be able to respond to now that they won't be working after school hours, mostly. So things like fires on campus, or a burglary that's on a student, or someone affiliated with the school … breaking in. Things like that.”

If you cut school police, would there be more calls to LAPD, and those officers might arrive on campus and escalate a situation?

Elianny Edwards: “If you look at the incident reports for the past year, the number one incident report with suicidal behavior. ...  I don't necessarily think that would require any police intervention, as much as it would require mental health professionals. 

The second one was injury [sic], and it was very ambiguous. So we're not sure if that was something like someone tripped and fell down the stairs and sprained their ankle, which is something that would require then a school nurse or some type of medical staff. 

And then the third was incidents of fighting and physical aggression, which you actually see happening more at the elementary and middle school level than at the high school level, which then would also suggest that it's possible for someone who's an administrative staff member to handle that situation. 

What the research is showing is that the incidents that are happening at schools don't necessarily need police intervention, that there are other people who are equipped and better suited to handle these situations.” 

Are you concerned that school administrators might just call the LAPD instead?

Elianny Edwards: “It definitely is going to require some kind of protocol adjustments on a school-by-school basis. … I think by not having school police, things like fighting and physical aggression won't necessarily escalate to the point where any police intervention will be required.

I don't think that many administrators will call LAPD. I think it will … shift the protocol. Police intervention will happen because police are there. If police are not there, folks are going to find other ways to mitigate some of the problems coming up at school, that in reality might not even be as big as they seem when the police are called.”

Is this the end of the discussion about defunding school police? Or will board members bring it up again?

Sonali Kohli: “It depends [on] who you ask. It's definitely not the end of the discussion. … The other thing that George McKenna and others who voted against this feel is really important to listen to the task force that the superintendent put together. So he put together a task force  to discuss the role of school police in schools, and come up with recommendations. 

So the people who voted against this resolution said, ‘Wait for the task force to come back.’ So people who voted for it said no. 

The task force though is still going to come up with recommendations that will really inform the decision making and the month to come.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin