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Student activists help divert millions in funding away from law enforcement in schools

Correction: An earlier version of this story included footage from a school shooting response training for law enforcement rather than police officers working in high schools, as implied in the narration. We regret the error.

The role of police officers in schools has come under increasing scrutiny, as communities across the U.S. respond to calls for racial justice and re-evaluate student safety. In Los Angeles, student activists played a major role in getting the school district to move away from funding police in schools. Julia Escobar, of the NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs youth journalism program, has the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The role of police officers in schools has come under increasing scrutiny, as communities across the country respond to calls for racial justice and reevaluate student safety.

    In Los Angeles, student activists played a major role in getting the school district to move away from funding police in schools.

    Julia Escobar, from the "NewsHour"'s Student Reporting Labs youth journalism program at Venice High School, has the story.

  • Julia Escobar:

    After George Floyd's murder, the call to get police out of public schools grew much louder.

  • Kahlila Williams:

    There is no reason why we need school police officers in our schools. They don't help us.

  • Julia Escobar:

    Kahlila Williams is a senior at Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Los Angeles. She's a part of a group of activists known as Students Deserve who've succeeded in millions of dollars diverted from police in the nation's second-largest school district.

  • Kahlila Williams:

    A lot of people undermined us as the students, saying that there's no way that students can make this happen.

  • Julia Escobar:

    But they did. Student and community activists successfully pushed the Los Angeles Unified School Board to divert $25 million from law enforcement. That's about a third of what the district had been spending on its school police force.

  • Student:

    Black students feel criminalized, have been pepper-sprayed, arrested. What else do you need?

  • Julia Escobar:

    The cut means more than 100 officers were laid off, and the use of pepper spray was banned. Officers used to be stationed at every high school and middle school, but now they will no longer be present on campuses, although they will still be on call to respond to problems.

    The board voted in February to use the divested money specifically to support Black students. As part of the district's ongoing efforts to address systemic racism, the funds will go to L.A. schools that serve predominantly students of color, and the district is now hiring more counselors and staff to provide social-emotional support.

    Nick Melvoin is a school board member who supported the change.

  • Nick Melvoin:

    We are a school district that is 89 percent of color. I'm a straight white man. I don't have the lived experience of all of our students. And so listening to them was so powerful, in actually understanding how my decisions were affecting their lives.

  • Kahlila Williams:

    You know, I don't want to do anything around a school police officer.

    And people may say, that's a good thing. That means there's no crime, there's no drugs, there's no this. But what that means for Black students is that's more trauma, more fear. They're scared when they're on campus.

  • Julia Escobar:

    Pedro Noguera is the dean of USC's Rossier School of Education. He's a sociologist who has studied disparities in the education system.

  • Pedro Noguera:

    Schools have to be safe. No one can learn in an unsafe environment or even a chaotic environment, right? We need safety and order for learning. The question is, what produces safety and order?

  • Julia Escobar:

    Mani Sefas-Loos is another student activist who believes having police on school campuses does not mean students are actually safe.

  • Mani Sefas-Loos:

    What safety is, is being able to be who you are without fear that somebody else who doesn't understand you is going to threaten you.

  • Julia Escobar:

    But Sergeant Rudy Perez sees his job very differently. He joined the district's police department 20 years ago. He grew up in Guatemala, where he saw corruption among police.

    But when he came to the U.S. and attended Los Angeles schools, he says the police officer at his high school inspired him to stay on track, and he wanted to do the same thing for others.

  • Rudy Perez :

    I love to mentor, lead, and protect kids safely through graduation. That's what I live with.

  • Julia Escobar:

    One criticism of school police is that, like when you have, like a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Why — like, what would you say to people who argue that police officers are just the wrong tools to have in schools?

  • Rudy Perez :

    A teacher, you should have the ability to de-escalate this fight. Don't call the police until somebody gets hurt, or now there's a victim.

  • Julia Escobar:

    Perez did not lose his job in the layoffs, but he believes the decision to divest the money was unfair to law enforcement.

    Rudy Perez It was done for something that happened in Minnesota, and it didn't happen here. It didn't matter whether you were a park ranger police officer. It didn't matter if you were a municipality. It didn't matter whatever it was. The badge and the uniform got demonized.

  • Pedro Noguera:

    Just by virtue of having a police officer on campus, you increase the likelihood that kids will be arrested for things that they should have never been arrested before.

  • Julia Escobar:

    According to the American Civil Liberties Union, students are 3.5 times more likely to get arrested on school campuses where police are present, compared to those without.

  • Pedro Noguera:

    I'm not against having law enforcement around, if their job is to keep the school safe. But when you see law enforcement doing the work of school administrators, then it's inappropriate.

  • Julia Escobar:

    Similar conversations about police in schools are happening in at least half-a-dozen other major cities around the country.

  • Mani Sefas-Loos:

    So, it was like a celebration for LAUSD, but I also hope that it was going to be a celebration for things that could come in other places.

  • Julia Escobar:

    Twenty-five million dollars will now be supporting positions and programs designed to help Black and brown students feel safer in schools.

    But that money is less than 1 percent of the district's $7.5 billion annual budget. The changes happening here are now allowing for a larger conversation about how best to support students in all aspects of their educational experience.

  • Kahlila Williams:

    I'm just amazed that this actually happened. Like, I never doubted us, but knowing that this is actually, like, for real is just an amazing feeling.

  • Julia Escobar:

    For the "PBS NewsHour" Student Reporting Labs, I'm Julia Escobar.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    An important story worth exploring further.

    And there is more to explore from our Student Reporting Labs. A new podcast, "On Our Minds With Noah & Zion," offers a unique opportunity to show what mental health really looks like for young people, what kind of services are available to them, and the real stories behind the statistics.

    You can listen wherever you get your podcasts.

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