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When 17-year-old Kahlila Williams heard ex-police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, she felt a sense of resolve — she knew it signaled that her work as a student activist was only beginning.
A leader with Students Deserve, Williams is part of a student-led organization that helped to successfully push the school board to defund the Los Angeles School Police Department last summer. Yet the high school senior — who will be attending UCLA in the fall — acknowledged that the work to reimagine policing and ending police brutality against Black Americans is still in progress.
This past week represented "a moment where you can just breathe, where you can take some space to celebrate, but also understand that there’s work that needs to be done,” Kahlila said.
Although the movement to defund school police had been years in the making, the nationwide protests following Floyd's death, captured on video by a 17-year-old in Minneapolis, energized the student campaign. The youth leaders turned the issue of systemic racism and policing in America into a call to action within their own school district. Activists have said Black students in the district are disproportionately targeted by campus police.
The L.A. school board began to reconsider policing on school campuses. In June, a split board voted to cut the school police by $25 million, about a third of its budget, invest the funding in Black Student achievement and resources.
The LAUSD plan cut 133 positions, leaving the school force with 211 officers, Chief Leslie Ramirez said. Parents and staff on high school campuses remain divided on whether the school police should be defunded, according to a districtwide survey conducted last year. Forty-three percent of parents and 47% of staff on high school campuses were opposed to the idea of gradually reducing the school force. In general, more than half of the parents and staff members surveyed said they felt school police make campuses safe.
Board members said the passionate calls from students activists influenced their decision during a time when other school districts were also moving away from having armed officers on school campuses.
“I have been moved to tears since the death of Mr. Floyd,” board member Jackie Goldberg said on the night of the decision.
Kahlila said their campaign, which included protests in front of school district headquarters and support from United Teachers Los Angeles, felt urgent.
"It means we won't have to wait for a hashtag, we won't have to wait for a name," Kahlila said. "We know that we can start seeing [change] now.”
The movement also showed her the power of her own voice. Even with her school, the Girls Academic Leadership Academy, shut down by the pandemic, she led virtual meetings and marched in demonstrations. She is already making plans at UCLA to get involved with the No UCPD Coalition, a student-led initiative to defund the University of California Police department.
Students Deserve will continue to organize for police-free schools to reimagine school safety and reinvest in Black youth in L.A. Unified, said Joseph Williams, the staff director of operations and campaign for the group, which is funded by the nonprofit Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs.
Over the past year, Maleeyah Frazier, 16, became more involved with Students Deserve, and her passions grew over criminal and racial injustice.
She said she was frustrated with the way the school district was not paying attention to the needs of students as the pandemic added pressure to their everyday lives. And when the video of Floyd went viral, it "was a breaking point for everyone.”
She said she had seen the way campus police at Hamilton High School had traumatized Black students. An analysis by UCLA found that Black students in LAUSD made up 25% of arrests by the school police force, but only 9% of the student population. After Floyd's death, Maleeyah said she wanted to speak up and advocate for her classmates.
"This could’ve been any of us," she said. She soon became the head of Hamilton's Students Deserve chapter, organizing meetings and encouraging students to get involved. She had always dreamed of becoming a nurse practitioner, but the past year showed her that she could fight for what she believed in, and she plans to continue pushing for criminal and racial justice.
But even with the relief she felt after the Chauvin verdict, Maleeyah noted that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed a budget increase for the Los Angeles Police department on Tuesday. "Another step back," she said.
In Sarah Djato's last class on Tuesday at Dorsey High School, her teacher went over how the judicial process had worked in the case before the jury's decision was announced.
When it came, the 17-year-old said she felt like she had been holding her breath, waiting. For the past three years, she had been involved with organizing against random searches on school campuses and advocating for increasing student resources. She felt proud to be a part of change in her own school district.
But, she wondered, was Tuesday's verdict really a victory in the larger scheme of police brutality and the killings of Black Americans?
"This is good for the family, but what about the countless others who haven’t received justice?" she said. "This is not justice, necessarily. This is not the outcome for every police brutality case that we’ve seen."
Sarah, a senior at Dorsey High School, plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania, study philosophy, and perhaps go to law school.
After attending Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, and standing alongside other students in their fight to defund school police, Sarah said she found herself thinking about the language used when talking about crimes, and how the criminal justice system often strips people of their humanity.
She said she wants to help create a society where rehabilitation and restorative justice are employed instead of punishment.
"The organizing that I’ve done has changed my vision and my philosophy," Sarah said. "I learned to always remember what love is, and to keep that within the work that I do."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.