Students call for defunding San Diego school police

Tatiana Howell, Endiya Griffin and Teija Purvis call for defunding school police in San Diego march
Tatiana Howell, Endiya Griffin and Teija Purvis lead a march through University Heights in San Diego on July 2 calling for the defunding of school police.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Many students in the San Diego Unified School District are calling for the complete defunding of the district’s school police, saying a police presence in schools leads to increased punishment and arrests that disproportionately hurt black and Hispanic students.

More than 200 people protested at San Diego Unified’s headquarters July 2 as part of a national surge linked to the Black Lives Matter movement and spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some protesters nationwide are scrutinizing police operating in public schools.

Organizers of Defund School Police SD, the student-run group behind the local protest, said they want money currently paying for school police to instead be used to hire more school counselors and black and indigenous teachers and fund more student services such as restorative justice and mental health programs.

“We believe all students should be able to be in a learning environment without worrying if cops will be around to bother them,” said Shukriya Osman, 15, a black student organizer and a sophomore at Bright Horizon Academy.

San Diego Unified, which covers about 208 square miles and includes the coastal areas from La Jolla to Point Loma, founded its school police department in 1984. It has 37 sworn officers and spent $9.6 million in the 2019-20 school year, out of an overall budget of $1.4 billion, according to the district.

Some school districts, like San Diego, are large enough to have their own police force, while other districts, including at least 10 in San Diego County, contract with local law enforcement agencies that provide school resource officers, who are police officers trained specifically to work with minors in schools.

San Diego Unified school police Chief Michael Marquez said his department’s job is to keep students safe, build relationships with them and help them form positive perceptions of police.

But student activists say having law enforcement personnel in schools makes many students of color feel unsafe.

“It’s exhausting to be on campus and not only worry about being a student but being a criminal in their eyes,” said Senait Hagos, 18, a black Defund School Police SD organizer and a graduate of Gompers Preparatory Academy, a charter school run independently of San Diego Unified.

Jazlyn Bass, a 16-year-old organizer and a Mira Mesa High School senior, said she has seen fellow black female classmates yelled at by school security guards and threatened with expulsion. She and other organizers contended that, due to racial biases, some police officers view black students as violent or dangerous.

“As a black student, you kind of get used to the trauma that’s inherent to having to defend your innocence on a regular basis,” said Endiya Griffin, a black 17-year-old graduate of San Diego Met High and a student organizer. “If you speak too loudly, you seem violent.”

Police officers who work in schools say they are needed to protect students and staff from threats such as school shootings, human trafficking and internet crimes against children.

Protesters urge districts to cut school police funds Thursday
Protesters supporting defunding school police march in San Diego on July 2.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

School police work with administrators to write school safety plans and train staff on what to do in case of an active shooter on campus. They handle incidents such as students taking weapons or drugs to school. School police or resource officers are sometimes called to help when students are going through psychological emergencies, such as attempted suicide.

Marquez said his officers are implementing restorative justice, which involves addressing the reasons why someone committed an offense rather than punishing the person for it. San Diego school police get training about implicit bias, trauma-informed response, de-escalation tactics, adolescent brain development, psychological emergency response and more, he said.

“We want our children in our community to trust the police,” said Marquez, who has been with the school police department for 19 years.

“We welcome the conversation because I’m a Hispanic chief, I’m a native San Diegan, I grew up in Logan Heights and National City,” Marquez said. “If we have children of color that are fearful of police, then we are doing something wrong and we need to change that.”

Growing scrutiny

San Diego is one of a growing number of school districts nationwide whose use of police is coming under scrutiny.

Oakland Unified’s school board recently voted to dismantle its entire school police department, and Los Angeles Unified’s board voted to cut its school police budget by 35 percent after protesters had called for the removal of the departments.

San Diego Unified board President John Lee Evans said the board should listen to what students think at a July 21 workshop that will discuss several racial equity issues, including school police, curriculum, school discipline and hiring for diversity.

“There are a lot of other things which could mitigate the need for us to have police on the campus,” Evans said.

Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne said that as an African American she understands students’ concerns but said what also needs to be considered is that students protested two years ago because they felt unsafe at school amid several school shootings nationwide.

“I think we need to have a balance,” Whitehurst-Payne said. “We need to weigh what needs to be done, and we will do that in a thoughtful, logical manner.”

While officials say school police protect against external threats, several analyses have determined that having police in schools leads to more arrests and discipline of students at schools, with black students being disproportionately affected.

A KPBS analysis of 12 years of San Diego Unified school police arrest data showed that black students were four times more likely to be detained than white students.

One 2016 study concluded that having designated police in schools leads to more arrests, particularly among children younger than 15, and more arrests for drug crimes, even as it improves school safety.

A study in 2018 said that federal grants for school police led to an increase in discipline rates of middle school students, especially black and Hispanic students, as well as decreases in graduation and college enrollment rates.

A UCLA analysis of three years of Los Angeles Unified school police data found that a quarter of police enforcement actions involved black students, even though black students represented less than 9 percent of the student body. A quarter of the arrests were of elementary and middle-school-age children.

Police in San Diego schools

Out of the 42 school districts in San Diego County, at least 10 had agreements with law enforcement agencies to provide at least one school resource officer for the 2019-20 school year, according to records from school districts.

San Diego Unified is the only district in the county and one of 23 statewide with its own police department, according to the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

While San Diego Unified spent $9.6 million on 37 police officers last school year, it also budgeted $4.4 million for 68 campus security assistant positions, said district spokeswoman Maureen Magee.

By comparison, the district has budgeted $30 million to employ 231 school counselors and $20.8 million for student mental health services for this year, Magee said.

Not every San Diego Unified school has a full-time counselor. Elementary schools that have 493 or fewer students get a counselor one day a week, and no elementary school gets a counselor for more than half the week, according to the teachers union contract. At high schools, a counselor is allocated for every 459 students.

Magee said San Diego Unified police made 127 school-based arrests during the 2018-19 school year. That’s down 79 percent from 10 years ago.

Ninety percent of students who are arrested go through the district’s diversion program, which allows students to erase the arrest from their record, Magee said.


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