LAUSD Superintendent Dr. John Deasy

The chief of the second largest school district in the U.S. offers his vision on education.

As superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Dr. John C. Deasy helms the second largest school district in the U.S. When he assumed the post in 2011, he brought his skill set as the former deputy director of education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he led the programmatic work on effective teaching, and as head of three school districts (Prince George’s County [MD], Santa Monica‐Malibu [CA] and [Rhode Island] Coventry Public Schools). He's also been a consultant to school districts undertaking high school reform and district‐wide improvement strategies and spoken and written extensively on education.


Tavis: Over the past few years on this program and elsewhere I’ve been taking an in-depth look at some of the challenges facing America’s education system. But no issue has troubled me as much as the current rush to incarcerate kids, some as young as 11, for getting into trouble, mostly at school.

Zero tolerance, which says any infraction will be treated to the full extent possible, is creating an underclass of kids heading to jail cells rather than to classrooms.

Tomorrow night, PBS is airing a report that I produced called “Education Under Arrest.” It looks at the disturbing growth of the school-to-prison pipeline. We took our cameras to Washington State, to Missouri, to Louisiana, and also here in L.A., to the second-largest school district in the nation, where the dropout rate and the detention rate had those in charge rethinking their zero tolerance policy.

Joining me now is the man tasked with finding – I should say ending – this downward spiral, superintendent of the LAUSD, Dr. John Deasy.

But before we start our conversation, let’s take a look at a clip from tomorrow night’s PBS special called “Education Under Arrest.”


Tavis: Dr. Deasy, good to have you on this program.

Dr. John Deasy: Likewise.

Tavis: And thank you for the time you spent with us for our special, which again, airs tomorrow night on PBS.

I want to start with the clip we just saw, and those 30,000-plus citations that these school resource officers, the school police, have been writing over the years. What’s driving – we’ll come to police officers and schools in a second conversation in a moment.

Deasy: Sure.

Tavis: But what’s driving these citations, so many of them being written, writing kids up for this, that, and the other?

Deasy: I think it was an approach which we ended in my administration, that everything is treated in terms of zero tolerance. We prefer to say that zero tolerance does not mean zero thought.

It absolutely was a way to begin to early criminalize youth, and this is not about all youth, this is very much about young men of color inside of urban school systems.

So what we realized is that when you approach discipline in a restorative way versus a criminalization way, there are many facets, as you well know, I suspect in your special, realize that students being late to school is not because they don’t care, it’s because they are the dad or the mom being 13 or 14 years old in that family.

When you take into consideration how, and what brings a student to tardiness, that doesn’t necessarily need to result in a citation. Now, if you bring a weapon to school, a very different issue. But by and far that was such a tiny fraction of the infractions, but they were all being treated the same way. That’s why we changed that.

Tavis: You’ve said a lot in that one answer that I want to go back and pick apart in just a second.

Deasy: Sure.

Tavis: Let me start with this notion of school resource officers – a nice phrase for school police. We see across the country that these in-school police are increasing. I just saw a study the other day, since in fact we finished editing this special for airing tomorrow night.

I saw a report just the other day that just over half of Americans are in support of more police in schools. It was a report done in the aftermath of Sandy Hook. So we’ve got a lot of Americans who think we ought to have more police in school.

I’m not of that mind-set, but what’s driving this notion of putting police in schools?

Deasy: So I would share my mind-set too. I need police in schools when they’re needed there for safety. They should not be doing administrative discipline. So there’s a big difference there.

Tavis: Right.

Deasy: You want police in schools so that students are safe, so that the school itself is safe, so the adults are safe around that, and obviously the unimaginable tragedy at Sandy Hook has increased parents’ concern that they too want police in schools for just such an event.

We don’t want them in school, however, to deal with routine discipline and to deal with tardiness, but that is, I think, what was happening, and that is what we actually stopped it on that.

So school resource officers, school police, have a role, and their role is to protect, and their role is to make sure that they are there in the unlikely but very, very worrisome event that there should be a safety threat, which is a limited but very necessary role.

Tavis: So tomorrow night in this special, the country will get a chance to meet and learn more from Officer Guzman, the young woman who you saw in the clip who works for the L.A. school police department.

Deasy: Yes, she does.

Tavis: She’s interesting because she talks tomorrow night – I don’t want to give too much away, but she talks about her philosophy in how she approaches these kids when she finds them skipping school, finds them in neighborhoods running around being truant when they should be in school.

We premiered this documentary here in L.A. a week ago or so, had hundreds of people come out for the premiere, and one of the persons on the panel that I moderated talked about the fact, to your earlier point, that so many of these Black and brown students, males in particular, feel harassed by these school resource officers, and you said earlier that so often it’s Black and brown kids in the inner city who these officers are writing up, who they’re looking for in the streets.

However you define it, they feel harassed by these officers. What do you say to that?

Deasy: So two things. One is I talk with them directly, I actually visit the camps, which is a ridiculous term for youth prison, but we use it in California. We want to separate this into kind of two groups, so students who are committing crime, that needs to be addressed.

But the majority have a whole bunch of reasons for either disengagement or nonengagement or being pushed out in some cases by repeated suspension. The first response should not be to actually escalate the criminalization, but it should be to engage them into the school, which is what we’re doing.

Just in the first year of the administration we cut our suspension rate by almost 50 percent. Of course, all our youth are non-white in L.A., which I have the privilege of serving. That’s an enormous opportunity for students to be back in school by just different approach to the way you deal with students who are struggling.

Tavis: To your point, one of the things we talk about, again, in this special tomorrow night, is how we got to this place, which I think is pretty stuck on stupid, where the response to your skipping school is that you get kicked out of school.

So the response to truancy is that we expel you from school. I’ve never quite understood how that works or why that policy even exists.

Deasy: I think it comes from an era which I have to say I’m seeing in the country moving very much away from, where kind of all infractions were treated the same, with the highest-level response, which is you’re out of school.

The same is failing to do homework, to skipping school, to a weapons violation. They’re not to be treated the same way whatsoever. Zero tolerance crept in, I think, into the mind-set for reasons which were understandable which had massive unintended consequences. That would be an example of one of them.

It requires a very dedicated and unique mind-set, which is what we expect all of our administrators to have, that students who are skipping school are not walking away for a job. They’re very frustrated, they’re very much struggling. That’s the time we want to engage them the most, actually, not the least.

Tavis: Yeah. Back to your earlier point about Black and brown kids, by your own admission, as the guy who runs the second-largest district in the country, disproportionately, the kids who are most being criminalized are Black and brown males. Why is that?

Deasy: So I think there’s a number of reasons why. I’m not an expert on this; I’m telling you what I see across multiple superintendencies. What I see in districts around this country is that I think that we fundamentally struggle with engagement of youth.

That we are changing the way we think about instruction. I think the notion that students are going to come in, joyously sit down and have their homework ready and just can’t wait to go to school, with the fabric so torn in society back home, the very issues that students face, those issues come into school, and they’re as present as the students’ need to understand geometry.

So we view the signs of disengagement as defiance, and disengagement and defiance are not the same, sir, and you know that. So when they’re always treated as defiant, then there’s a simple reason; that is, you know, get out. That’s just the opposite of what we’re trying to do.

Tavis: Yeah.

Deasy: And I think that there are issues of fear. I think (unintelligible) what’s going to happen if I challenge a student, and what we find out is in the schools where we are watching few if any suspensions, you’re watching a very different notion of teacher engagement with students. I couldn’t be more proud of it, and it’s actually astonishing.

Tavis: To your point of teacher engagement, let me ask – which is not good television, but let me ask a two-sided question. I’ll go back, a two-part question, and let you take your time with it.

Deasy: Sure.

Tavis: On the one hand, I want to ask you whether or not we are expecting too much of teachers, whether or not with all these issues that we’ll talk about in this special tomorrow night we’re just asking teachers to do too much beyond the basic notion of teaching in the classroom.

We’re asking them to parent, we’re asking them to be counselor, we’re asking them to be et cetera, et cetera. So question one is are we asking too much of teachers? Number one.

The flip side of that question, I suspect, is what the motivation is for a teacher who has a “problem child” in his or her classroom to really engage that child. If we can get rid of the child, if you get the kid kicked out of your classroom, it certainly makes the disruption go away. It makes it easier to teach the other kids there.

Deasy: Yeah.

Tavis: If the kid isn’t performing well and you’re “teaching to the test,” it makes it easier to get those test scores up. So what’s the rationale, the motivation, for a teacher to engage a trouble child, an at-risk child, to begin with? So I’m sorry, two questions.

Deasy: Yeah, let me start with the second first.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Deasy: What’s the motivation? That’s why I and everybody I know, certainly the amazing teachers in LAUSD, why we come to work, and that is to work with those students.

The student – you’ve got to keep this in mind. The student who may be disruptive in class is in class. They’re not not coming. They are coming. (Audio drop-out) to be engaged. Remember, every single student at LAUSD wants to be you or me, and our goal is to help them get there.

They want a part of this American dream, they want to participate in this democracy, they want a roof over their head, they want to be able to graduate college workforce ready, and they want a living wage with benefits. That is our obligation around that.

If they were not there whatsoever, we wouldn’t know that. But they are there, and sometimes disruption is just a shout-out because I don’t know any other way to tell you I’m struggling.

The first part of your question – and that is the mission. That’s why we open school every day, and parents are sending us the very best they have.

So the first part, are we asking too much, yeah, we are. Of course we’re asking too much. When society is struggling to even give our youth medical attention, give our youth dental attention, vision. So many of our youth in L.A. and certainly other large urban centers, these huge, huge numbers, more than, in L.A., more than 80 percent, live in circumstances of peril and poverty.

They don’t have those things. We’re trying to meet those types of struggles. We feed our students three times a day, and so we should. They need to eat. There are students who are single-parent households, there are students with no-parent households, who have an older brother or sister taking care of them, or they themselves are the parenting adult in the house.

Yes, all those things come to school, and we’re trying to put those services inside of a state and a country which is disinvesting in public education, not reinvesting in public education. So less support of structural services in the community fall onto the school, with less resources.

What we try to do, very much so, is keep money focused at the school, but it has been very difficult in these economic times, particularly in this state.

Tavis: As a superintendent of a school district, I expect that your answer to this question would certainly be in opposition to those who want to deinvest in education. I can imagine that. But what’s your read on why as a society, or how as a society we think that we can disinvest in education and not pay some long-term consequences for that?

Because you’re right, it’s happening not just in California, but across the country, and as budgets are tight, states are getting squeezed, education is the one that – education is one of those areas where the budgets get cut. Help me understand what the impact of this is going to be long-term to our society.

Deasy: Well, I’m going to say why I think we make those cuts.

Tavis: Right.

Deasy: It’s because the client doesn’t have a voice. So in any other place you make cuts, people can speak up.

Tavis: AARP, et cetera, et cetera.

Deasy: OK. Well, preschoolers, kindergarteners don’t exactly have a megaphone.

Tavis: Right.

Deasy: So that’s very, very problematic. The long-term impacts in this country are grave. McKinsey about a year and a half ago produced a report that talked about the achievement gap is equivalent to a permanent recession in this country if we are unable to invest and close that for youth in this world.

The kids in L.A. are not competing for jobs with kids in Compton; they’re competing with kids in China. They’re not competing for jobs with kids in Inglewood, it’s India. This is very much a global society. Not only just entrance into post-secondary, but simple job market.

The economic viability of this state and this country are inextricably linked to public education. I don’t joke when I said L.A. is America, only sooner. We are coming to a hometown near you. We look like this country is going to look, and we had best figure this out, and figure this out on the rights of kids first.

Tavis: What is the link between poverty and this school-to-prison pipeline that we’re trying to get at in this special? What’s the link between the two?

Deasy: So we say that when we work in schools, poverty is not destiny, absolutely is not. Living in circumstances of poverty does not actually mean automatic to less than or actually to criminalization. But we also realize that kind of the best economic stimulus is a diploma.

So if you want to break the cycle of poverty, we actually need to have you graduate college and career-ready. That is impossible if you are criminalized into incarceration. For many in an urban center, it’s graduation or incarceration, and it had better be graduation. I know you; I suspect you feel the same way as I do.

When I’m old, I want someone taking care of me. Those are going to be my students. They need to be competent.

Tavis: Yeah. In this special tomorrow night, called “Education Under Arrest,” we talked to a judge in St. Louis, a guy named Jimmy Edwards, who I’m a huge fan of now because he got so tired of seeing the same kids come before him day after day after day that he decided he should do something more than just be a judge and just lock these kids up.

So he started an alternative school, he started Innovation Concept Academy, and it’s a wonderful program where he gives these kids a choice. You can go to my school, or I can lock you up.

Deasy: Yup.

Tavis: So he gives these kids another chance. I think tomorrow night the nation is going to be riveted by his work and by what he has to say, and the fact that he loves enough and cares enough to get off that bench, to be the principal when he’s not on the bench, of an alternative school.

We visited a couple of alternative schools here in L.A., alternative schools in the LAUSD system. Give me your sense of whether or not these alternative schools are working, and to the extent they are, why they are decent options for kids who can’t make it in a traditional school setting.

Deasy: So two things. One is the alternative schools, which we have a fairly significant number of them, are definitely working because we know that our students are staying with us, and they’re graduating.

Tavis: Right, right.

Deasy: And in much larger numbers than have ever happened before. Secondly, there’s not enough of them. So that would be the one thing I would push for, is we could kind of grow that.

We’re also watching things like Youth Court, where I have minor community infractions, I come in front of my peers, and you provide me support. I have a restorative set of consequences. That is also working inside of L.A. and I suspect other large urbans as well.

The notion that a student has this choice, I think that makes tremendous sense. I have total ownership of my next set of outcomes. As opposed to someone doing something to me, I actually gain some agency around that, which is why I think such a school as the one you just described probably has great success.

Tavis: Yeah. I talked to a lot of young people for this special. We spent an inordinate amount of time hearing from young people. One of the things that always troubles me is in the conversation about education reform, it’s about everything but what the kids are up against.

It’s about teachers’ union and teacher pay and administrators, oftentimes failed administrators and charter schools, and everything except what the kids have to endure every day.

Deasy: Yeah.

Tavis: So I wanted to spend a lot of time talking to young people, and we did that across the country, and there are two thing that stand out that will come through loud and clear in this “Education Under Arrest” special tomorrow night, two things that stand out for me, in no particular order.

Number one, a lot of these kids feel like they don’t matter. They feel like they don’t count, they feel like they’re an afterthought. A part of that comes from classrooms being so oversized, and there are a number of other issues that these kids discuss with me tomorrow night in this special.

But talk to me about this notion that when kids come to school, that many of them don’t feel valued. You talked earlier about the customer, the client, not having a voice. There are a lot of these kids who feel like they don’t have a voice even in their school, in the classroom, but for whatever reason, they don’t feel valued. They don’t feel appreciated or made a priority when they come in the classroom.

Deasy: So I think that youth do feel that. I think they feel that outside of school and I think they feel that inside of school. I think that the schools that are remarkably successful, which I see dozens and dozens, at least in Los Angeles, is where youth counsel, youth voice, takes center stage inside the school.

So you have visited alternative schools, we have teacher-designed schools; we have schools where all the faculty and administration are hired with youth at the table, that have an equal voice in hiring the teachers.

That looks very different in those schools, sir. Totally different. When a school feels that actually this is done for them and with them, there’s obviously a buy-in and engagement around that. I think that – I meet students every day, I go to schools all the time, and students that I meet for the first time, many – I go back to schools and I see them over again and I know them.

The first time is like, “So why did you come? Why are you talking to me?” You literally have to say, “Because you’re the reason I come to work. That’s what I care about. The other nonsense, no. It is about that, and that is the reason this administration and that this district is focused on youth rights.” When students listen to that, it’s very transformative.

Tavis: Yeah. One of the other things that came through loud and clear for me – these kids are really angry. There’s a lot of anger. You ran a list earlier of some of the things that make them angry – the responsibilities that they bear, the drug and alcohol abuse in their families, the domestic violence that they’re exposed to in their homes, being the breadwinner for their families. You’ve put together a good list.

Deasy: Parenting adults.

Tavis: Parenting, exactly, and there’s a long list of these things, but these kids come to school so angry and so short-tempered, that fuse is just very, very – simply a very, very short fuse. Talk to me about the notion of anger, because I sensed in talking to kids in St. Louis, in New Orleans, even Washington state, so this is not just a Black or brown crisis.

Deasy: No.

Tavis: A lot of white kids are in trouble. We saw them up at Washington State on lockdown.

Deasy: Yup.

Tavis: But all these kids, so many of them are there for anger. So much of this, they end up in this school-to-prison pipeline for fighting. Talk to me about how you manage and what you see in your district every day vis-à-vis the anger that’s inside of our babies.

Deasy: So one of the things that we know is that the school alone can’t do that. You need strong and very present community partners. Many parts of L.A., we’re very lucky with that. There’s actually a place I’ve never seen quite like that, so on the east side or Watts or South Central or the South Harbor area or the Valley, you have community agencies who actually work with and train youth workers to be a support to students.

In those places, it’s huge. It makes an enormous difference. Many students are very angry, and the very first thing, I believe, in solving that is I know you’re angry. You want to talk about that? As opposed to the consequence if you’re going to act out.

Let me understand what the issue is; let me see if I can listen. Let me see if there’s a way I can direct support or help to you. Then I can talk to you about algebra. To pretend that that’s not on the table is, it just actually stirs the anger more.

Do you have any idea what I’m going through? The answer is probably no. So why don’t you tell me so I can be a better teacher, I can be a better administrator around that.

When youth feel that there is no alternative and that I “don’t matter,” so therefore the consequence doesn’t matter either. That’s an easy thing to see happen. When they do feel it matters, that they matter, the consequence matters, and they might actually think very differently (unintelligible) behaviors around that.

When a system universally treats all kids the same way, that’s another way of saying that you yourself actually don’t have value or presence. You’re just a number, and you’re actually an infraction, a code. That is not about restorative justice.

Tavis: In 30 seconds, tell me whether or not, with all that you are up against in this district, and given what we’re seeing across country, are you hopeful?

Deasy: Very.

Tavis: Why?

Deasy: Very hopeful.

Tavis: Why?

Deasy: Because I meet kids every single day. They’re amazing. They’re absolutely amazing. There are students who, the most unimaginable peril, are having phenomenal outcomes. That’s tremendously hopeful.

What worries me is it’s not everyone yet, and that’s very frustrating, but it’s just not hopeful.

Tavis: Yup. There are a couple of kids tomorrow night you will meet in this special who I think will give you some hope as well, despite all they were up against with regard to this school-to-prison pipeline, which is growing exponentially in this country.

The special is called “Education Under Arrest.” It airs tomorrow night, that’s Tuesday night, the 26th of March, on your local PBS station, 8:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 7:00 p.m. Central.

“Education Under Arrest,” where you will see Dr. John Deasy from the LAUSD as part of that special tomorrow night, but a lot of wonderful people that you will meet tomorrow night in that special, so hopefully you’ll tune in for that.

For now, thank you for coming on.

Deasy: Thank you, sir.

Tavis: Appreciate your time.

Deasy: Thank you for (unintelligible).

Tavis: That’s our – my pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. We’ll see you here tomorrow night. Until then, thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 30, 2014 at 11:54 pm