High school students: Police don't belong in schools. Here's how we forced them out.

Sarah Djato, Sierra Leone Anderson, Quiano Assoon and Kahlila Williams
·9 min read

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has one of the largest school police departments in the country. Black students make up less than 9% of the district, but between 2014 and 2017, 25% of all citations, diversions and arrests made by school police were of Black students. We have been targeted and criminalized for everything from dehydration to depression, accused of using drugs or being thugs, and even pepper-sprayed while walking to class. We have not been looked at as young, gifted, Black children who deserve investment and support.

Well, Black students just made history. Our organizing led to the LA school police budget getting cut by $25 million.

In February, we got the LA School Board to remove a third of school police from the force and remove school police from all LAUSD campuses.

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We got them to ban school police using pepper spray on us. And after a lot of pressure, LAUSD will reinvest the $25 million, as well as an additional $11.5 million, into services for Black students in 53 schools with high concentrations of Black students.

Our victory adds additional counselors, therapists, restorative justice coordinators, ethnic studies and "climate coaches" to our schools instead of police.

The four of us are high school student leaders in Students Deserve, a coalition of students, parents and teachers working to make Black lives matter in and beyond schools. We have been following the lead of Black Lives Matter for years and are working to divest from the LA school police budget and invest in Black students. We all had different experiences that brought us into doing this work.

Traumatized as children

Sarah Djato in Los Angeles, in June 2020.
Sarah Djato in Los Angeles, in June 2020.

Sarah: "In 2019 there was a fight on my campus. As students and teachers were de-escalating the situation, school police pepper-sprayed the students who were fighting and others who were just walking to class. It was traumatic seeing students from my neighborhood, students I grew up with, getting pepper-sprayed. Two of my friends, a junior and a senior, were arrested. They were forced to transfer schools, and the experience risks pushing them into the school-to-prison pipeline.

"Police presence on campus increased after the incident. They brought police dogs on campus. All for a fight. We knew this should not happen again."

"We got to work. We organized. And we won. Do teenagers fight? Of course. But now, instead of police and handcuffs and pepper spray, Black students can be supported with counselors and therapists. Not having police on campus will allow us to thrive."

Sierra Leone: "I had my first interaction with school police in the third grade, and I’m devastated to even have to admit that. I was 7 years old and already dealing with the anxiety that comes with academic and social expectations.

"One day at recess, I had a panic attack. Crying till my eyes were red, I hid under tables and refused to come out. Eventually, my teachers lost their patience and called upon a school police officer to come and deal with me. Immediately, I could tell he wanted nothing to do with the situation. I found him rude and unfriendly. I begged for my school’s counselor instead, but when I learned she wasn't on campus that day, I ended up feeling more isolated than ever. If I had resources like full-time therapists or full-time psychiatric social workers while in elementary or middle school, I know I would have felt a lot safer and seen in my environment."

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Quiano: "Growing up as a Black male, I try and stay away from cops. I have been stereotyped by school police as a 'thug' and messed with because of my choice of do-rag. My friends, and even my mom, know I wear them to lay my hair down.

"I’m glad police are not going to be on campus anymore. I’m not gonna lie, it can be traumatizing. I'm glad that instead of seeing friends get pepper-sprayed and policed, now Black students will get counselors and resources. It’s what we deserve as students and as human beings."

Kahlila: "During 10th grade, I was in Leadership class and in charge of the end-of-year school event. I was running all around, had forgotten to drink water and passed out from dehydration. When I woke up, the school police officer was there and asked me if I had a history of drug abuse, and I felt accused of having an overdose. Before that incident, I had never questioned why we had school police. I always thought they were there for our safety. That moment changed my whole perspective.

"I should have had a counselor wake me up and ask me why I was stressed and had forgotten to drink water, not be confronted by police. But this is how Black students get treated at our schools by police."

History in the making

For many people, May 25, 2020, marked the day the world opened its eyes. While some of us were at home quarantining, George Floyd took his last breaths under the knee of America. His death was a catalyst for mass protests to defund police everywhere. His death pushed more people to admit the injustices of our system, which we already knew to be true.

We knew we had to reclaim Black life and Black futures from anti-Black institutions, including school police.

Part 1: End random searches

Our movement did not start in 2020. For years, Black students and families have led campaigns to end “willful defiance” suspensions and truancy tickets that disproportionally impacted Black students.

They have opposed the acquisition of tanks and grenade launchers by LA school police, and youth leaders fought against the closure of public schools in Black Los Angeles.

In 2016, we met with Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, and developed a plan we called Black Lives Matter in Schools.

For three years, we organized to end LAUSD’s so-called random weapons search policy which took students out of class to search us — supposedly for weapons — while systematically instilling fear and shame in Black and Muslim students.

To win, we organized LAUSD students across 75 schools. We crashed the superintendent’s fancy fundraiser in 2018 and later showed up to his house when he stopped listening to us at school board meetings. We performed street theater in Santa Monica, publicly showing what criminalizing Black youth looks like in schools.

We worked with allies to strategize and gather research and asked the LA teachers’ union to make ending "random" searches one of the demands for their 2019 strike. That June, the school board finally eliminated such searches.

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Throughout this campaign, we did more research into the school district's police — and were shocked to find that LAUSD was spending tens of millions of dollars on school police every year. In 2017, Cullors connected us with Black Lives Matter-Toronto, which had just pressured that school district to eliminate its school police program. We knew we were heading there soon.

Taking our cause to the streets

When the Black Lives Matter uprising bloomed last summer, we were ready. We were already organized. We already knew what was needed. We pushed forward.

Part 2: Defund school police

We started by hitting the streets with our partners in Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles along with several thousand LA residents. We knew that we as Black student leaders had to bring this momentum to our schools, and that we needed more data. We created a survey that reached over 5,000 students, alumni and LAUSD-affiliated people in five days.

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Our survey confirmed that Black students face overcriminalization in LAUSD. Eighty-six percent of all respondents — and 88% of Black students — wanted the school police to be fully defunded. In fact, 85% of current and former students who had experiences with LA school police reported the experiences to us as negative, including racial profiling, being followed and use of force. We released the results to the public last June, in the week that we hit the streets for our "March to Defund LA School Police."

Next, we helped form a "Defund LA School Police Coalition" of more than 70 organizations here. Over the next few weeks, we organized protests at the school board every Tuesday, shutting down the streets in front of the headquarters and sharing our experiences in speeches, songs, poems, aerial photos and dance routines.

Each time we were in the streets outside, some of us would go inside and give public comment to the superintendent and school board demanding the defunding of school police and investing the funds in Black students — and our futures — instead.

On June 30, we won our first victory. Four out of seven board members voted to cut the school police budget by $25 million, 35% of the entire budget. The next victory, banning the use of pepper spray and diverting the police budget's funds to support Black students, came in February.

Eye on the future

We are extremely proud of the work that we put in to get here. We, as Black LAUSD students, led the meetings, developed the strategy and led the actions.

And we are not done. This victory was only the beginning, as we know the key to the ultimate success of all students means police-free schools. Our goal is to fully defund school police in LA and fund Black futures.

We want to see the school police defunded before we graduate so that younger generations are able to experience a positive school climate with an abundance of resources available for Black students. We want to be the last generation of students that gets traumatized by police at school. We want the kids in future generations to look at us crazy when we tell them police used to do this to us when we were supposed to be learning. Safety at school — it's what every Black student deserves.

Sarah Djato, Sierra Leone Anderson, Quiano Assoon and Kahlila Williams are four Los Angeles Unified School District high school students and are leaders in Students Deserve.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Students: How we got Los Angeles Unified School District to cut police