No Cops Needed in the Hallway: The LA Push Against School Police

By Bethany Jo Murray, Shan Missouri, Pharren Miller, Michael Anderson, and David C. Turner III

Illustration by Megan Rizzo

This piece is a part of our Spark Series Imagining Abolition and Educational Safety Beyond Policing

The murder of George Floyd catalyzed a reckoning around anti-Blackness, racism, and police violence in the United States. This reckoning galvanized the public, policymakers, and researchers alike to ask the following question: how is school safety defined and enacted?

School safety is one of the most challenging topics in education, in part because today’s K-12 students face a more punitive and policed environment than previous generations. Prior to 2020, fear of school-based violence gave rise to both zero-tolerance policies and an unprecedented level of direct police presence on school campuses. Further, school discipline researchers have documented disproportionate rates of school disciplinary action against Black youth and students of color for the past two decades. In Los Angeles specifically, the Million Dollar Hoods project based at UCLA has documented how the Los Angeles School Police Department has disproportionately criminalized Black youth and students of color. Building on histories of abolition and community resistance to the criminalization of Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color, an LA-based movement of various community organizations grew to create police-free schools.

A youth protestor at a rally in June of 2021 to defund school police in front of LAUSD
Photo by Corleone Ham, Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition

We interviewed California youth activists, community organizers, and educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) police-free schools’ movement to understand how they are working to redefine school safety and imagine a safer world. The following is a summary of our findings, starting with community organizing efforts and wins leading up to the creation of the police-free schools campaign in LA and culminating with the campaign’s outcomes.

The Movement Arc

Large cuts to public education in California, conservative attacks on affirmative action, immigration, and the massive growth of incarceration in the mid-1990s laid the groundwork for organized resistance to policing and surveillance in schools. In fact, California’s wave of conservative assaults laid the foundation for two decades of movement building in communities of color. In 2012, when self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, parents and students in Los Angeles, more than 2,500 miles away, intensified the existing concern and unrest regarding the treatment of LAUSD’s Black student population. Specific issues of interest included classroom removals and the overall disproportionate punishment of Black and Brown students.

Community organizations, such as the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition, organized to create and implement the 2013 School Climate Bill of Rights (SCBOR). The SCBOR advocated for reducing law enforcement participation in disciplinary incidents and implementing restorative justice policies. Building on the successful implementation of SCBOR, the Labor Community Strategy Center and Students Deserve launched successful campaigns against the use of military grade weapons and the elimination of “random searches.” Among other key victories, these wins built the base for the development of the police free schools campaign.

Photo of protestors in front of LAUSD on June 23rd to defund LAUSD School Police
Photo by Joshua Ham of the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional organizing efforts, but provided renewed potential for significant structural changes. As a part of a larger statewide Student Bill of Rights campaign, the pandemic led to a Covid Bill of Rights campaign in LA, which included banning pepper spray, divesting from school police, and investing in resources for students. In late May 2020, organizers urged superintendent Austin Beutner to adopt the Covid Bill of Rights. He refused. A week later on May 25, 2020, the heinous murder of George Floyd was captured on film sparking worldwide uprisings. This moment presented a unique opportunity for organizers to make headway in decreasing police power in LAUSD. Organizers launched a survey to learn students’ opinions regarding defunding school police. Over 5,000 students responded and 86% of respondents in LAUSD expressed desire to defund police in LAUSD. The survey also illuminated alarming statistics regarding harms school police were inflicting on Black students at disproportionate rates. For example, of all survey respondents, 85% reported being followed by school police, questioned, belittled, racially profiled, randomly searched, sexually harassed, and more.

In response to the survey, organizers led a march to demand a full defunding of LAUSD school police. Organizers also convened a massive group of organizations fighting for education justice in Los Angeles to establish the Police-Free LAUSD coalition. The Police-Free LAUSD coalition is led by Black students, parents, and community organizations. Through the coalition’s efforts LAUSD cut $25 million from the $78 million LASP department budget in June 2020. Instead, the $25 million was used to support Black students’ mental health, well-being, and academic achievement now known as the Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) program. The strong foundation of organizing in Los Angeles led to a massive win for divesting in school police. This win also demonstrates that communities outside of Los Angeles can also redefine school safety.

Redefining Safety

At each level of organizing it was paramount to maintain vigilance during policy implementation. Nefarious activity was guaranteed to ensue if organizers lost focus. As a result, keeping a watch for people, institutions, or legislation that wanted to erase or water down their demands was a priority. For example, some of our interviewees reported that educators replaced restorative justice rooms with new in-school suspension quarters, and former school police officers applied for new school-climate focused positions. To be clear, removing police from schools is easier said than done. Abolition is not only about getting rid of something but building something better and life-sustaining in its place. According to the students, educators, and organizers in the Los Angeles-based police-free school movement, safe schools meant an environment of trust and care from staff and faculty, not spaces occupied by armed police roaming the campus with a desire to arrest Black and Brown students. We must continuously highlight the distance between what is being done and what needs to be done. Most important is demonstrating the social, emotional, and fiscal cost of police in schools. School police cost lives, they traumatize, and they suck financial resources away from schools.

Copy of Community Vision for Safe Schools in LAUSD Report
Image by Bethany Jo Murray, Michael Anderson, Pharren Williams, Shan Missouri, and David C. Turner III

Outcome of Campaign

Since the defunding of $25 million from LAUSD police, the campaign to keep BSAP strong continues. Currently, BSAP has an annual budget of approximately $120 million. In June 2023, members of the Police Free LAUSD coalition won a resolution to implement community-based safe passage programs without police. Organizers also continue mobilizing efforts to improve the implementation of BSAP. While the tragic murder of George Floyd galvanized the world to protest anti-Black police violence and LAUSD to partially divest from police in schools, much of the momentum from 2020 has diminished.

Despite the loss of momentum, students, teachers, parents, and organizers continue to build coalitions across LAUSD to abolish school police. As one community organizer reminds us, “The biggest challenge in implementation is [sic] pushing a system that is not designed to do what we want it to do. The broader field of education was also not prepared to do this.” As a result, they are continuously challenged to work within the confines of present-day schooling, an anti-Black, settler, colonial construct. Overall, our research on the LA Police-Free Schools campaign offers unique insight into how abolitionist movements are built over time and how abolitionist organizers are redefining safety within schools. Through the BSAP program schools are now equipped with specialized personnel dedicated to student’s social-emotional well-being, academic achievement, and a non-punitive positive school climate. These activists in Los Angeles disrupt the logics of carceral safety and are taking action to build a holistically safer world.

Bethany Jo Murray interrogates social work’s relationship to law enforcement in the United States, both historically and contemporarily, which is grounded by her formative experiences working in the gender-based violence field and movement building spaces. Within this context, she explores the potentials of anti-carceral social work practices.

Shan Missouri is a PhD student in Human Development and Psychology at UCLA whose research focuses on how the school to prison pipeline and criminalization impacts Black adolescent development. With a goal to bolster developmental psychology research that centers Black youth resistance, Shan’s research interests are sociopolitical development and Black youth political action.

Pharren Miller is a PhD student in the UCLA’s Sociology department whose research interests include Black feminist theory, Black girlhood studies, education, carceral studies, abolition, ethnography, and comparative history. Pharren currently uses qualitative research methods to examine the ways gendered anti-Blackness impacts Black girlhood in schools.

Michael Anderson is a PhD candidate in UCLA’s Department of Education where he studies the history of Black education by analyzing the political economy of education through race, class, and gender. He looks at how international politics and the impacts of European colonialism shapes local, national, and economic issues for black education in the US and across the African diaspora.

David C. Turner III is an assistant professor of Black life and racial justice in the Department of Social Welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA. As an activist scholar from Inglewood, California, his research broadly focuses on youth-based social movements, political identity, and resistance to the prison regime.