Faced with a soaring budget deficit and a growing fear of school shootings, Fontana Unified took a drastic step in the early 2010s: First, the board laid off the district’s entire staff of 69 counselors. And then it bought its police department 14 automatic rifles.
The San Bernardino County district was not unusual. In the wake of the Columbine school shooting, 9/11 and the 2008 recession, school districts throughout California were making similar choices to cut mental health services in favor of more police, according to a 2019 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Now, as the Black Lives Matter movement gathers momentum, some districts are moving in the opposite direction: cutting back on police spending and hiring more counselors. But social justice advocates say that eliminating police should only be a first step, and districts need to take broad action to reduce institutional racism that they say permeates most aspects of the education system.
In June, Oakland Unified voted to shutter its police department, saving $4 million per year, and other districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, voted to reduce funding for its police force by $25 million. San Francisco Unified and West Contra Costa Unified, among others, voted to sever their contracts with local police departments, saving millions.
Investing in mental health counselors
There are plenty of benefits to investing in mental health counselors, research has shown. An analysis by the UCLA Black Male Institute at the Graduate School of Education suggests that redirecting police funding to mental health might be the most effective way to address a surge in student behavior problems and other incidents on school campuses linked to rising poverty and childhood trauma.
UCLA doctoral student Elianny Edwards and her colleagues examined thousands of incident reports in L.A. Unified from 2010 to 2019, and found a 906% increase in incidents, such as suicide threats or misbehavior related to trauma, that could have been handled with mental health services.
But, during that same period, the district increased police spending by 48% even as student enrollment dropped 18%, her research showed.
“Allocating funding to mental health services is a preventative way to create safer schools,” Edwards said. “Whereas, hiring more police is reactive.”
Black and Latino students
They also cite funding inequities that affect schools with a majority of low-income, Black and Latino students, according to several reports, including a 2018 study by the Education Trust.
With less money, schools with Black and Latino majorities are less likely to have extra tutors, counselors, coaches and enrichment activities like field trips, and more likely to have facilities in need of upgrades.
All of that creates an environment where students are more likely to misbehave in class, get into conflicts with teachers and other students, or otherwise become disengaged in school, experts and advocates say.
“Ending police is a crucial step to dissolve the juggernaut of racism in our schools,” said Saa’un Bell, strategy director for Californians for Justice, a statewide racial justice organization, citing persistent inequities in funding and student achievement. “At the same time, we know that racism pervades all aspects of our education system, and needs to be addressed at all levels.”
The issue is complicated by the evolving role of police in some districts.
The role of campus police
At a state hearing earlier this month, school police officials said that if they’re properly trained, campus police can have a positive impact on students and improve campus safety. They can get to know students personally, work closely with school staff and steer students away from criminal behavior before it escalates.
“We don’t want kids to be taken out of school in handcuffs. Good (school police) know this,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, during the hearing.
And in some rare circumstances, police are necessary at school, said Loretta Whitson, director of the California Association of School Counselors. Cases of sexual assault, threats of physical violence involving weapons, child abuse or criminal incidents in the community that spill onto campus are all best handled by officers, she said. And local municipal police might not be as well-trained or equipped to interact with youth as specially trained school police would be. Some schools are opting for unarmed security guards, who can quell disturbances on campus and help students steer clear of trouble.
For Shawn Brown, an incoming high school senior in Fresno, it was teachers and administrators — not the campus police — who caused him the most trouble and nearly derailed his academic career. But, he said, it was a school counselor who saved him.
His sophomore year, he was sent to the principal’s office for wearing a blue shirt, in violation of a rule against wearing gang colors, which he said was rarely enforced. Another time he was disciplined for using a camera in class. Both times he said he was berated, and he felt he was singled out because he’s Black. (At his school, almost 78% of the students are Black or Latino, but about 60% of the teachers are white).
“They made me feel like I was a bad kid, like I was ‘less,’” he told EdSource. “It was a bad feeling, because I was already upset about these other things that were going on with me. I just wanted to stay in class.”
To try to rectify things, he visited a school counselor about his grades. She told him how to boost his D’s into C’s, and was so encouraging, he visited her a few more times.
‘Punishing a kid is not helping them’
“She really wanted me to succeed. She was optimistic about my future,” he said. “I think that’s what a lot of kids need. Punishing a kid is not helping them. … We’re kids. If we mess up, you might need to take more steps. Not just one or two. It may be four or five or ten.”
Cheyenne Lewis, who graduated from high school in Oakland in June, said that even though she had no interactions with school police, her classmates did, and that experience left a deep impression on her.
In middle school, she sometimes saw police handcuff Black students for fighting or engaged in other misbehavior, she said.
“For me, it normalized the criminalization of Black youth,” she said. “I thought it was normal for children of color to be handcuffed.”
Those types of experiences eroded any trust between students and police, she said.
Thankful for campus police
But not all school police interactions are negative. Alena Cotton, who recently graduated from high school in Fresno as her class valedictorian, said campus police actually played a pivotal role in her life.
When she was a freshman, she started a fight at school and campus police broke it up. A female officer talked to Alena afterward.
“She sat me down and told me I had to learn how to control myself. She understood,” she said. “I am very thankful I had that experience, because that one little misstep could have put me on the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said, referring to the disproportionate tendency of students who get disciplined at school to be incarcerated as adults.
Alena has plenty of friends who weren’t so lucky. Some have been suspended or had negative interactions with campus police over relatively minor infractions, and the experiences left them scarred.
“The badge can be a trigger for a lot of people, especially if you’re Black. It’s like you feel cornered. You’re thinking, ‘Oh no, I don’t want this to end badly,’” she said.
Among California’s 1,000 school districts, 23 fund full campus police departments while many more contract for police services with local municipal departments.
The shift to local control in 2013 made it easier for school districts to free up funding for mental health services and programs like restorative justice, an alternative to traditional discipline that allows students to talk through their conflicts and reach a peaceful resolution.
And in the past few years, the state began pressuring districts to reduce their suspension and expulsion rates and improve campus climate overall. Most recently, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond hosted a panel on July 10 on how districts can find money to hire more counselors and other mental health professionals.
A drop in student suspension rates
Some districts, like Stockton Unified, San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified, have begun seeing drops in suspension rates as they’ve adopted alternative discipline policies and emphasized student wellness, partially as a result of the state’s ban on suspensions for willful defiance — defying teachers or disrupting school activities — in elementary and middle schools. Los Angeles Unified’s suspension rate across all categories has dropped 75% since 2013, when the board banned willful defiance suspensions entirely
In Fontana, the move to eliminate counselors while increasing police spending did not sit well with school staff or many in the community. With no counselors on campus, discipline rates soared. In 2011-12, the suspension rate was 9.2% — and more than 17% for Black students — well above the state average of 13.8% for Black students and 6% overall that year.
Josh Godinez, a counselor in Fontana at the time, was reassigned to be a classroom teacher.
“Parents were in an uproar. There we were, trying to provide good role models for students, and they were wanting to strengthen the police department,” he said. “The priorities were way out of line.”
The district eventually restored its counseling staff and discipline rates have dropped significantly since then. Godinez left the district several years ago and now works as a counselor at Corona-Norco Unified in Riverside County. He says police can play a positive role on campus.
“We want police to provide a platform to educate students about right and wrong. Police don’t always have to be the bad guys,” he said. “I think we all need to work together. It takes everyone in the community to raise a child, and I do mean everyone.”