California Legislators Take Aim at School-based Policing

State laws that encourage alternatives to school-based policing in California may have done little so far to decrease the number of students funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline, but a bill introduced in January aims to change this through policy enforcement and data collection.

Current state law requires California schools to collect data on police and student interactions to be submitted to the Department of Justice upon request. In reality, the law’s enforcement mechanisms are unclear. A report published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that one-third of California school districts do not require staff to keep any records of police-student interactions. And even the districts that do require some data collection generally do not use it for analysis purposes.

Following a wave of media reporting and academic research showing the negative effects of using law enforcement for minor misconduct on school campuses, two Assembly bills were introduced in January, both with the title “School Safety: Peace Officer Interactions with Pupils.”

But the sponsoring legislators have decided to combine their efforts into one bill to ensure it moves into law, according to staffers in the legislators’ offices.

Across the country, headlines in recent years have highlighted disturbing interactions between law enforcement and students. Video of a police officer flipping a student out of her chair and dragging her across the classroom floor over a cell phone went viral. Reports of elementary students as young as six years old being handcuffed and removed from school outraged communities.

Then, in October of 2016, the ACLU released its report on California schools which found that the outsourcing of school discipline to police officers resulted in disproportionally high rates of arrests of students who were poor, minority and disabled – and that many California schools lacked clear policies for when and how the police may be called to campus.

California lawmakers quickly responded. On January 13 of this year, Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego) introduced Assembly Bill (AB) 163, which would require school boards to adopt and annually review a policy regarding the scope of peace officer interactions with students and consider how to reduce officer presence on campuses.

A few days later, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) introduced Assembly Bill 173, which would require school districts to adopt policies to protect students’ rights in interactions with law enforcement, to collect and publicly report comprehensive data about officer-student interactions, and to have a procedure through which students and community members can complain about misconduct relating to officer interactions with students.

“AB 173 will help us better measure the true impact of school resource officers by requiring law enforcement to report data on their detainments and arrests,” Jones-Sawyer said.

Weber’s office has decided to shelve AB 163 and instead will support Jones-Sawyer’s bill, believing it will have a better chance of surviving the legislative process.

With over 410 sworn police officers, 101 school safety officers, and 34 civilian support staff in Jones-Sawyer’s district of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles School Police Department is the largest independent school police force in the United States. Serving a population nearly completely comprised by Latinos and African Americans, Jones-Sawyer has reason to be concerned about policing that disproportionally affects students of color. And his constituents are making their voices heard.

One community advocacy group is the Brothers, Sons, Selves (BSS) Coalition, which advocates for positive alternatives to punitive school discipline policies and reducing criminalization in communities of color. The BSS Coalition supports measures to decrease the presence of police officers in schools.

“They aren’t just police officers,” said Gabriel Vidal, a youth organizer with InnerCity Struggle – one of the eleven nonprofit organizations included in the BSS Coalition. “The role has blurred into taking on what administration or teachers really should be doing.”

While groups like InnerCity Struggle agree that something needs to be done to improve discriminatory practices within school discipline, there is disagreement about what the next step must be. While many organizations support any efforts to improve the relationship between law enforcement and students, some organizations are disappointed by measures that focus on peace officers instead of allocating resources for more counselors or greater support for teachers. Still other groups will not endorse a bill that allows any permanent presence of officers on school campuses.

On the other side of the debate are law enforcement associations, particularly the large Los Angeles School Police Department.

In a message on the Los Angeles School Police Association (LASPA) website, Rudy Perez, president, said the mission of the association is to “Mentor, lead and protect the community of Los Angeles Unified School District.” Perez also wrote that one of LASPA’s goals is to create “an atmosphere of transparency and communication” with the communities it serves.

While the bill is not likely to exit the committee in the same form it entered, supporters hope that the collection of data on student-law enforcement interaction is a policy that all parties can get behind. “Ultimately, once we have this data, we can then craft flexible statewide policies to ensure both the safety of students and the protection of their individual rights,” Jones-Sawyer said.

Kaitlyn Hennessy
 is a Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management student at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. Previously, Kaitlyn was a middle school teacher and plans to bring her passion for empowering children and their communities into her nonprofit work. She wrote this story for the Media for Social Change course at USC. 

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