Disciplined: Law Enforcement on School Campuses
By Kyra Hudson
Nabil Romero was on his second bus of the morning. His single mother, overwhelmed with work, had been unable to drive him, and as the minutes ticked by, he knew he was going to be late.
The then 18-year-old Roybal Learning Center student never made it to class. Instead, upon his arrival at school, he was forced into the back of a police car and fined $350.
“[In order to pay the fine,] we started cutting back on food expenses, clothes expenses, shoes,” Romero said in an interview with Huff Post. “This was all my fault for not being in class.”
Romero’s experience is not unusual for Los Angeles Unified School District students. Within LAUSD, similar policies have been implemented in many schools since the passing of Proposition 13, American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Litigation Director and Staff Attorney Victor Leung said.
Police departments have stationed officers at public schools around the country for decades, especially in low-income communities, according to the Los Angeles Times, and over 500 full-time officers from the Los Angeles Police Department have patrolled more than 1,147 schools since the department’s creation in 1948. In comparison, New York City Department of Education, the largest school district in the country, only has 200 full-time officers patrolling campuses, according to the Los Angeles School Report.
Police activity on high school campuses has been very controversial, according to the Los Angeles School Report.
“Having police officers on campus can be problematic,” Leung said. “Traditionally, a dean or a counselor would give a kid detention if they act out. But, at schools with these police officers, they are arrested or cited or questioned by law enforcement officers and that just leads to the criminalization of so many students.”
This heavy campus police presence has only increased following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, Leung said. According to the Washington Post, 57 percent of schools have some kind of security presence, increasing from 42 percent the decade before.
As the numbers of school shooings continues to rise each year, with 36 this year alone, according to the Washington Post, the government has pushed for more law enforcement on campuses, Leung said.
However, Leung said he questions the ability of these policies to end attacks.
“Even with the officers on campus, many of the attacks have not been prevented,” Leung said. “Research has shown that it is a pretty ineffective way to deal with the problem. We found that the best way to deal with these issues is to have counselors who can talk with students about the issues they are having early on and then being able to support them. Counselors can help prevent guns from coming to campus in the first place.”
Despite this, disciplinary policies have only become harsher in recent years, Leung said. The new policies range in severity and enforcement throughout the district, but all of them have called into question students’ constitutional rights, Leung said. One of these policies, widely known as the Metal Detector Policy, consists of pulling students out of class and searching them with a metal detector. On campus police officers then proceed to search their bags before letting them return to class.
Director of the LAUSD Restorative Justice Department Deborah Brandy said she did not know why the Metal Detector Policy is in place.
Yet, the negative effects of the policy are visible throughout the district, Leung said. LAUSD reading and math scores are below the nation’s average, according to the Los Angeles Times. Removing students from their class hinders students’ ability to effectively learn, Leung said.
“In no other district have we heard of something like this happening to students,” Leung said. “This is just one of the examples of how the schools are not valuing education and actually criminalizing their students. They are treating them like they are suspects.”
The traumatic experiences brought about from these policies have kept many students from coming back to school, Leung said.
However, some of these new disciplinary policies have been praised by LAUSD members for bringing suspension and truancy rates down, according to the LAUSD Board Report. After eliminating “willful defiance” suspensions, the suspension rate in LAUSD dropped to only 1.3 percent, which is half of L.A. County’s 2.8 percent rate and more than three times lower than the state’s rate of 4.4 percent, according to the Chronicle of Social Change.
Leung said he questions whether the lower suspension rates truly represent a change in discipline for the LAUSD district and pointed to the district’s use of ‘ghost suspensions’—in school suspensions that require students to remain in designated spaces on school property for the duration of the day—as the cause of these lowered rates.
LAUSD assistant superintendent of school operations Earl Perkins denied these claims, however.
“Informal suspensions are not in our makeup,” he said in an interview with the Chronicles of Social Change. “There might have been one case. We have referral rooms for students, but it’s not suspension. They may go out of class, but it’s not suspension. We don’t have ghost suspensions. It’s not supposed to be happening. If it does, it’s dealt with very severely.”
Youth Justice Coaliation organizer Kim McGill agreed with Leung in an interview with Chronicles of Social Change but expressed concern that some schools pressure families to transfer in order to keep numbers down.
In order to push these students out, actions like talking back to a teacher or missing a class that might warrant a detention at Harvard-Westlake School could justify a suspension, expulsion or a criminal record in LAUSD schools, Leung said.
“There is a list of specific behaviors in the Education Code that cause suspensions or expulsions,” Leung said. “The problem is some of these behaviors are so general like ‘disrupting school activity’ or ‘defiance’ that we see many students being pushed out of the education system because of these vague behaviors.”
Leung pointed to a lack of resources as the underlying issue behind LAUSD’s disciplinary issues. The district is unable to properly train the faculty and staff, and it is also severely understaffed due to underfunding, he said. For example, the ratio of counselors to students in LAUSD can be anywhere from 1 to 600 to 1 to 800 students, whereas the recommended ratio is only 1 to 250, according to the LAUSD Board Approved Staffing Ration.
“It is pretty much impossible to personally know 800 kids,” Leung said. “This makes it difficult to intervene when you don’t personally know the kids. I think if the schools had more support, in terms of resources, a lot of these problems would be fixed.”
Racial biases also largely contribute to this issue, Leung said.
According to the Los Angeles Times, almost 90 percent of students who are in LAUSD identify as students of color. Thesestudents of color receive a significantly larger proportion of the citations, according to The Center for Public Integrity. According to the 2011 LAUSD police department data, African American students are heavily ticketed, despite only makiung up a small percentage of the LAUSD student body.
In 2012, students throughout the district protested against the biases and the overuse of police presence on campus, according to The Center for Public Integrity. These protests and overall dissatisfaction from the school communities led to written agreement by the LAUSD school board in 2014 stating that citations would be given out less frequently.
However, this statement has proved insignificant, as the problem has only grown in recent years. The increase of gun violence expanded the need for police presence on campuses, disrupting students’ ability to learn, Leung said.
In fact, as the disciplinary policies of LAUSD have become more heavily enforced and monitored by the police, the enrollment rate has dropped dramatically. In the last ten years alone, enrollment has dropped by almost 200,000 students per year, according to the Los Angles School Report. While some of these decreases are due to the rise of charter schools in Los Angeles County and the rest of the United States, some, like Leung, also speculate that it is due to student resentment of these policies and LAUSD schools.
This rapid decline in enrollment creates financial problems for the district, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Since LAUSD gets more funding when more students enroll, this loss costs them millions of dollars per year.
Without this money, the LAUSD does not have the funds to continue to pay as many staff members and will soon be forced to lay off many employees, LAUSD School Board Vice President Nick Melvoin said in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News.
Instead of perpetuating these problematic policies, Leung said that he and the ACLU hope to help students through restorative justice.
In focusing on the students, Leung said they hope to mend their feelings towards their education as a whole, as well towards as their peers and teachers.
For now, as students are still frisked by officers and fined for truancy, Leung said he hopes ACLU can continue to fight for the LAUSD students constitutional rights.
“LAUSD policies are really difficult for everyone,” Leung said. “But, we are just trying to make the policies more beneficial for the students and stop criminalizing them.”