Editor’s note: This story first appeared on palabra, the digital news site by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. It is part of the “Safe to Learn” investigative series, exploring how communities define safety for their children and what those children need in order to develop their full potential in and out of the classroom.
María Sánchez has some peace of mind now that her 22-year-old daughter is in college and her 18-year-old son is in the Army.
She’s glad they’re no longer in high school in Southeast Los Angeles, a neighborhood with one of the city’s highest crime rates. For years, she and her children worried about the area’s gang activity and unhoused individuals. And at school, she says, “there were fights, there was vandalism and there were drugs. There was nearly no police, and if they (the school) called them, police arrived half an hour later.”
Eventually, the school increased security and the bus stop was moved closer to the school. But for this Mexican mother – whose youngest child, a 7-year-old, has Down syndrome and is deaf – law enforcement is a non-negotiable component of school safety. She demands a police presence morning and evening, inside and outside schools.
A native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, who packed her bags and migrated to the U.S. two decades ago, Sánchez is a volunteer at Our Voice: Communities for Quality Education (OVFE), a group founded by activist Evelyn Alemán at the onset of the pandemic to amplify the voices of Latino immigrant parents seeking to shape the future of education in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Seventy-three percent of LAUSD students are Hispanic, and Alemán wants to be sure they and their families influence decision-making about what happens in LA schools — including whether police are in them. So far, her group feels left out of this conversation.
Many OVFE parents are first-generation immigrants, including Sánchez, but that hasn’t stopped them from calling for more police in schools. In 24 years here, Sánchez says, not even once has she run into problems with the LAPD.
“I have never had that fear (of police). Never. I’ve always felt safe and confident that, as long as I don’t create problems, look for trouble or do something, it’ll all be fine,” she says.
Sánchez and her community high school in Los Angeles are windows into a complex and divisive nationwide debate over school police, a controversy driven by historical, racial and cultural tensions, competing interests in different communities, fears of mass shootings and conflicting perceptions of safety. What is clear is that determining the potential benefits and harms of school policing requires deeper research, according to a 2022 report by the National Institute of Justice.
At OVFE, parents –– many of whom are undocumented –– see school police as a deterrent mechanism.. Rocío Elorza, a Guatemalan mother whose children attend Los Angeles public schools, contends that law enforcement should be the centerpiece of efforts to dissuade fights among parents on school grounds, prevent student overdoses, and keep in check difficult and defiant students who see themselves as untouchable. “Students sometimes say that ‘because I am a minor, nobody can do anything to me,’” she says.
These groups, like OVFE, want to focus on “whole-child” approaches that respond to student needs in, and outside, the classroom and create a safe learning environment that allows them to thrive as individuals. But they are insistent that school safety needs to be community-driven, not based on the presence of police in schools.
Members of Black communities in LA and elsewhere around the country say their experiences justify getting police out of schools. Existing data, they argue, support the need for police-free schools. A 2022 report released by The Police Free LAUSD Coalition showed that in LAUSD, Black youth account for 25% of arrests and citations, even though they make up 8% of the student population. Nationwide, Blacks comprise 38% of the U.S. prison and jail population despite representing 12% of the country’s population. Hispanics are also overrepresented in the carceral system compared to their total share of the population. While Hispanics comprise 18.9% of the U.S. population, they are nearly 30% of the federal prison population.
Calls to end Black overrepresentation in the criminal justice system and to defund police gained momentum following George Floyd’s murder by Officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. Civil unrest and a wave of protests quickly spread across LA, while the LAUSD board cut funding for the LA School Police by nearly 35% and removed one-third of police officers from campuses, a decision that was welcomed by leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
OVFE members, however, were unsettled by the anti-school police push, and felt Latinos’ concerns weren’t taken into consideration. “Our Voice parents attempted to speak with leaders about the issue and offer their perspectives and concerns, but it became clear to them that their voice wasn’t going to be taken into account — not by board members or organizations advocating for the defunding of school police and the removal of school police from campuses,” says Alemán.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, Los Angeles is believed to be the nation’s epicenter of school police, with more than 200 sworn officers and over 20 non-sworn officers serving the LAUSD. Since the Los Angeles School Police Department deployed officers to patrol schools in desegregated neighborhoods in 1948, the presence of school-based law enforcement in the U.S. has grown steadily. In the 1950s, schools in Flint, Michigan deployed the first School Resource Officers (SROs). By 1966, Chicago deployed forces that they called “friendly” officers to dissuade crime among minors. And the late 1990s onward saw calls for school police in response to mass shootings. Fast-forward to the 2017-2018 school year, and more than half of public schools had police officers, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
While this trend has continued with Republicans and Democrats in office, determining the benefit or harm of school police may not be as clear-cut. Some experts argue that there’s no consensus on what school safety looks like because perceptions vary among individuals and regions.
“I don’t know that policing in schools is done in the same way anywhere. (It) just looks so different from place to place that it’s difficult to draw conclusions (about) benefits,” says Tara Raines, former co-chair of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Policing in Schools Task Force. “It’s so human-dependent that it’s hard to tell.”
A police-free approach to school safety
Some community organizers don’t want to wait for more data. About 370 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the city of Oakland became a bastion in the fight against school police after the 2011 murder of 20-year-old Black man Raheim Brown by Oakland school police outside Skyline High School. Multi-year efforts led by the Black Organizing Project (BOP), a grassroots organization founded in 2009 to fight for racial and social justice, culminated in the 2020 passage of the George Floyd Resolution and the removal of police from Oakland schools.
Brown’s death deepened BOP members’ concerns that school policing was mirroring the policing of Black individuals in the city’s housing and public transit system. In a push for transparency about school arrests and police accountability, BOP rallied community support and Black and Latino activists joined forces to launch the Bettering Our School System (BOSS) campaign.
As a result, BOP developed the country’s first district-wide school police complaint system available to students and parents to track police interactions and misconduct and collect data on school-based arrests and law enforcement referrals. The goal was to make numbers available to the community so they could understand the scope of the problem.
“I’m somebody who also was impacted by school push-out. I was expelled before I could complete a full year of high school. I was arrested over three times on school campus. And so I’m also one of those people who graduated from continuation school,” recalls Desiree McSwain, BOP’s communications manager. “I know the effect and the feeling of school push-out and of being over criminalized.”
BOP also managed to limit the power of police in school disciplinary actions –– a measure recommended by NASP. And for 4th through 12th grade students, BOP pushed for the elimination of willful defiance, a subjective student suspension for low-level behavior, such as disrupting school activities or refusing to remove a hat.
“There’s a very small section of legally-mandated life-threatening reasons that you should call police,” McSwain explains. “Otherwise, if it’s a fight, you call (the) coordinator of safety. If it’s a mental health (issue), you call the behavioral health center. And so that’s been one of the biggest things because, previously, they just called police for every single thing.”
McSwain argues that progress in Oakland shows in the numbers. In the first semester of 2023, calls to police dropped to 500, compared to 2,666 in the 2016 school year. Out of the 500, only three led to arrests.
Among other measures, the school board also agreed to funnel $2.3 million into restorative justice and preventive initiatives in an attempt to reduce criminalization of youth. However, McSwain regrets that anti-racist and anti-bias training is not mandated in a school district composed of 22.1% Blacks and 44.2% Latinos.
“We really want to get at this anti-racism training, the implicit bias, because it’s obvious that people hold inherent beliefs that Black students, and specifically Black male students, are violent, are dangerous, and therefore, they need to be policed.”
Being at the forefront of the country’s anti-police movement, Oakland’s progress has been monitored closely by other groups and activists across the country. According to Katherine Dunn, an attorney with the multi-racial civil rights organization Advancement Project, Oakland and BOP “developed a pretty comprehensive plan about school safety.” But it has fallen short of expectations, she says.
“It’s a beautiful document. It’s words on paper. Has it actually all been implemented? Is it still community-driven? No, I mean, it has not been,” she explains. McSwain notes that the gap between vision and implementation isn’t due to a failing of BOP. Rather, she says, “Until the district commits to adequately funding the implementation of the resolution, it will continue to be a power struggle between the district and the community.” Dunn adds that despite the shortcomings, Oakland is “still standing strong on not returning school police, which is more than other districts, I think, can say.”
This past September, however, some parents called for more safety measures after a shooting at Skyline High School that put the school on lockdown. And while the Oakland model may provide insightful lessons to other school districts pushing for police-free schools, it is not a one-size-fits-all school safety framework.
Where school safety intersects with immigration
In Arizona’s Phoenix Union High School District (PXU), activists and community organizers with the grassroots group, Poder in Action, are keeping an eye on cities that, like Oakland, have made reforms and removed school police. But PXU’s unique characteristics present their own challenges.
“A lot of districts that were able to get cops out of campus successfully were really small districts or really small schools, and our schools are enormous. We have so many students,” says Stephani Espinosa, campaign manager for Poder in Action, which seeks to build power for people of color and dismantle oppressive systems. “I think a big part of this is the data. We just need to know what our needs are. What are we calling cops for?”
PXU is one of the nation’s largest school districts. The student population is over 81% Latino, and discussions about school safety often include the region’s anti-immigration sentiment, exacerbated by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s hard-line immigration policy, which was consolidated into law SB 1070 in 2010. Considered to be the country’s strictest anti-immigration bill at that time, the measure sought to reduce the state’s undocumented population and came to be known as the “show me your papers” policy.
“The history of the U.S. is really rooted to build structures and systems that were not for us, that were not for people who look like me and my family,” says Viridiana Hernández, who grew up in Arizona undocumented since age one and is now Poder in Action’s strategy director.
Unlike Alemán’s group members, Poder in Action’s activists worry that school police could lead to arrests or deportation proceedings because the Phoenix Police Department had aligned with Arpaio-like anti-immigrant policies and the union supported SB 1070 in the past. “There’s a lot of fear in our community,” says Espinosa.
But, in a statement emailed to palabra, the PXU school district said: “Law enforcement is not involved in daily discipline, detentions, suspensions, or expulsions. We also have policies and procedures in place to protect our students and families when law enforcement or other agencies request access to them on our campuses.”
Over the last decade, Poder in Action has campaigned for reforms with mixed results. In 2020 –– a year marked by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and Floyd’s murder –– the school district promised to remove all SROs. This year, the district board reversed course, voting to bring back six SROs, and proposed an off-duty model, with two officers per region.
It’s not the outcome that Poder in Action desired. But activists know that they are in a long-haul fight. “We knew that it wasn’t a possibility to get cops out of campus completely because our district does not have the infrastructure to support that,” Espinosa explains.
The latest plan by the PXU board foresees the creation of some of the infrastructure Espinosa finds crucial, including a confidential complaint system allowing students, school staff, and parents to report law enforcement interactions –– mimicking that of Oakland. The board, too, supports a Student Bill of Rights. But frustrations are running high in the community. “Nothing is assuring us that they’re gonna walk through implementation,” Espinosa laments.
Her skepticism is not unfounded: Other cities’ school boards have backpedaled on promises to remove school-based law enforcement. This year, a judge ordered the Denver Public Schools board to release the recording of an unlawful, closed doors meeting during which they voted to bring back school police.
The controversial board decision –– it prompted legal action by media outlets and angered advocates –– came after two school administrators were injured in a shooting at Denver’s East High School in March of this year. The 17-year-old student who fired the shots later died by suicide.
“They (the board) go off of feelings, rather than data, and it’s their very own data,” says Elsa Bañuelos, executive director of Movimiento Poder, a Denver-based organization advocating for police-free campuses.
According to the organizer, school police increase punishment for students while failing to make campuses safer. The data, she argues, are conclusive: The school district saw a 93% decrease in police tickets from 2020 until now. “Less police presence equals less tickets,” she says.
Benjamin Fisher, associate professor of civil society and community studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-author of What a Systematic Review of 32 Evaluations Says About the Impact of School-based Law Enforcement, explained that scientific evidence aligns with Bañuelos’s views.
“We didn’t find any significant prevention of crime in schools, and that includes gun-related crime and weapon-related crime,” he says.
Fisher also found that school-based law enforcement contributes to higher rates of student discipline. But it also improves perceptions of safety in school –– though evidence for this was limited to only two studies.
In Bañuelos’s eyes, the district’s concept of safety does not serve students. “For us –– as an organization ––, safety looks completely different,” she says. “It’s a place where we feel acknowledged, uplifted, educated, fed well, have access to mental health services –– that is feeling safe for us.”
She worries that students’ most pressing needs –– including those linked to COVID and the pandemic –– are inadequately addressed. The organization has been providing mental health support to students feeling suicidal and depressed because their families may be struggling financially, fighting at home, or experiencing unemployment.
Another concern the organization is prioritizing and currently gathering more detailed data on is a suspected increase in overdoses among students that may be linked to post-pandemic stress. “We’re also hearing that students are starting to overdose…at school. And then, they’re doing lockdowns, which bring in police officers. And then, instead of finding treatment for these students, they’re being arrested or ticketed,” she reported.
In line with activists in other U.S. school districts, Bañuelos also calls for cutting funding from surveillance and policing programs and redirecting it toward initiatives that support students’ needs. Additionally, she advocates for school climates that are welcoming and protective of parents, especially of those who are undocumented and for whom the fear of deportation hangs over their heads –– even in sanctuary cities.
This fear was realized in February 2020 when an undocumented mother was arrested by ICE outside her kid’s school in Philadelphia.
The school district lacked protocol to handle and respond to ICE interventions, so they reached out to Juntos, a community-led immigrant organization based in South Philadelphia, whose advocacy efforts and expertise provided guidance and support to the mother and her family before the pandemic hit.
“A lot of family members, a lot of students and parents were scared and worried about…how the arrest of this woman would affect them,” says Juntos’s youth organizer Guadalupe Méndez.
Pro-immigration activists ran a successful campaign to limit ICE’s impact on campuses. And the fruitful collaboration between the school district and Juntos resulted in the June 2021 passage of the Welcoming Sanctuary Schools resolution, which promotes schools as safe havens for immigrant students and calls for updated guidance and training for school staff to handle federal immigration enforcement actions.
Standing by their motto, “No sanctuary cities without sanctuary schools,” Juntos’s campaign sparked celebrations in the community. But, for the mom detained by ICE, the resolution came too late. She had already been emotionally scarred by the fear of deportation hanging over her head and the possibility that she could be forced to leave her kid behind – a powerful reminder that each school’s safety policy can ultimately determine the fate of its students and their families.
palabra reached out to Denver Public School Board of Education President Xóchitl Gaytán, PXU’s President Lela Alston and PXU board member Jennifer Hernández, and the schools attended by María Sánchez’s and Rocío Elorza’s children, but no one provided comments.
This story received additional funding by the LA Press Club’s Charles M. Rappleye Investigative Journalism Award.
Aitana Vargas is a Columbia University graduate and an award-winning on-camera news reporter, foreign correspondent, and live tennis commentator based in Los Angeles. She began her career anchoring a local Spanish-language TV show while obtaining her BS in Physics from Berry College and then interned at the BBC, CNN International, and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope Communications Department in Germany. Her Master’s thesis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Columbia University was supervised by Professor Rashid Khalidi. Her stories have appeared on Público, EFE, CNN Expansión, Narratively, Hoy Los Ángeles, the LA Times, DirecTV Sports, TVE Internacional, Cuatro/Telecinco TV Network, HITN TV Network, and others. She’s received several LA Press Club awards (Investigative Series, Sports Journalist of the Year, Obituary, Consumer, Sports & Hard News) and the 2018 Berry College Outstanding Young Alumni Award, and she is a Livingston Award finalist. Aitana was also the Spanish-English interpreter for transgender artist Daniela Vega, lead actress in the Academy Award-winning film “A Fantastic Woman.” Learn more about her at aitanavargas.com
Zaydee Sanchez is a Mexican American visual storyteller, documentary photographer, and writer from Tulare, California, in the San Joaquin Valley. She seeks to highlight underreported communities and overlooked narratives, with a focus on labor, gender, and displacement. Zaydee is an International Women’s Media Foundation grantee and a 2021 USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Fellow. Her work has been published in Al Jazeera, National Geographic, NPR, among others. She lives in Los Angeles.
Julie Schwietert Collazo is a bilingual writer, editor, fact checker, and translator, as well as the co-founder and director of Immigrant Families Together, a nonprofit formed in 2018 to respond to the family separation policy. Along with Rosayra Pablo Cruz, she wrote The Book of Rosy/El libro de Rosy, published by HarperOne and HarperCollins Español in 2020. Both authors are featured in the documentary, “Split at the Root/Dividida en la Raíz,” which is streaming on Netflix.