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Defunding the Police: Is it Reducing the Safety of Students?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brent Tercero, Tracy Rickman, Ygnacio, Flores and Don Mason
April 12, 2021

Defunding police has been a banner many politicians have rallied under as a part of law enforcement reform. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board of Education (Board) recently voted to reduce its funding for the Los Angeles School Police (LASP), a separate and individual police agency focused solely on the district’s 1,300 schools, centers and administrative offices. The LAUSD Board reduction to the LASP came in the form of redirecting $25 million dollars to invest into the hiring of, “School climate coaches,” focusing on de-escalation practices and other related duties meant to improve achievement in the schools.

This was not a question of doing more with less. It is doing less with less when safety and security is used as a lens of the Board’s decision. The LAUSD voted to cut LASP staffing levels by 70 sworn officers, 62 non-sworn positions and one staff member. The question lingering in this decision is whether the defunding plan by the LAUSD will create safer environments for the students and staff than before the redirection of funds and reduction of staffing levels for the LAPD.

The question of overall effectiveness of school climate coaches has yet to be answered. The goal is to have all students build trusting relationships with climate coaches and resolve issues and concerns through early remediation. This in turn seeks to reduce acts of violence and ease tensions among students. Leading up to their decision, the LAUSD conducted an opinion poll of parents and students on the issue of school police. While a majority of parents, students and staff felt that school police increased campus safety, only 50% of Black parents and 35% of Black students agreed with that statement.

Under the LAUSD’s plan, they are transferring the previously held trust in the LASP to ensure public safety to one where the climate coaches will mitigate the need for calling the LASP by de-escalating violence to a manageable interaction through verbal actions. This strategy is partially in response to student responses in the LAUSD’s poll showing they did not feel the public safety officers, when called, could be trusted to ensure their safety. The reality of student responses weighed heavily on the recent vote by the LAUSD Board to reduce the LASP budget and redirect those funds to a less-than-lethal option in the form of climate coaches.  

The finding is significant, but it does not necessarily mean school police officers are unnecessary or cannot be part of the solution. The school climate coaches will aim to increase positive campus culture, build trusting relationships with students, implement social-emotional health building practices and address racial biases in school discipline. Most importantly, they will be unarmed. Part of the resolution passed by the LAUSD Board included the removal of armed officers from campuses. Instead, school police will be called when needed with a goal of a 3-5 minute response time. While all of these measures seek to increase positive campus culture, it remains to be seen the impact this will have on campus safety.

Absent in the conversation on reducing violence in the schools is how people other than students, staff and parents factor into violence on school campuses. Will the climate coaches work with those on the periphery of an officially recognized population to reduce violence in the school environment? What authority will climate coaches have outside the gates of the schools to address violence affecting the schools?

School shootings in recent years have shown that 3-5 minutes waiting for a police response can seem like an eternity by those involved, not to mention the potential for loss of innocent lives. It is just as likely that a regular police unit will respond to an emergency. Without armed officers on campus, students may be in more danger when emergency events do occur. However, without the trust of all students, regardless of race or identity, officers will be unable to serve their role effectively. This new role will now be the responsibility of the school climate coaches, but it remains to be seen if they can fulfill it.

Other strategies must be explored as law enforcement reforms to meet the needs of contemporary society, particularly as it pertains to school police. Law enforcement will need to align training, tactics and operations to present an approachable and trusted officer. Most significant of all is the need for civic and civil leaders to work with law enforcement leaders, not against them. The current issues with law enforcement are the result of a collective society, shaping over generations, the police that are seen as today’s problem. Mayors, city councils, Boards of Trustees and other elected officials have had a hand in creating modern police. They must continue shaping them to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse citizenry yearning for just public safety and law enforcement 

Authors: Brent Tercero is a former city councilmember with a decade of experience in education advocacy. Rickman, Flores, and Mason are on the faculty in various public safety programs.

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