As Los Angeles Unified conducts a budget review this summer, school police practices also are under the microscope as the nation's second-largest school district does its part to address a nationwide issue of systemic bias and institutional racism, Superintendent Austin Beutner said today.
"We cannot ignore legitimate concerns and criticism that students and other members in the school community have about all forms of law enforcement," LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said. "The culture and climate of schools must be founded on inclusion and respect. No person should feel the presence of a safety officer on a campus as an indictment of them or their character."
Beutner said he's asked a group of local experts to work with LAUSD officials to take a "careful look" at school safety officers and listen to students, families and staff to inform recommendations that will be brought back to the Board of Education.
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Also to be considered, Beutner said, is the fact that school police have never fired a weapon on campus since their ranks were formed in 1984. And he said, the officers -- who are not part of municipal law enforcement agencies -- investigated more than 150 threats of mass shootings and responded to more than 100,000 other incidents last year, including attempted robbery, assaults and other serious crimes.
School police also act as counselors and mentors to students, de- escalating incidents on campus.
The group dedicated to making recommendations to the board "will look at what is needed to keep schools safe, as well as what students need to feel free from stigma and feel they are a respected part of their school community," Beutner said. "They will ask hard and uncomfortable questions and come up with concrete recommendations. It should be clear to all in our nation, there's much work to do if we are to create a just and equitable society. Los Angeles Unified must take action and be part of the solution."
Beutner called Los Angeles Unified a continued leader in terms of changing school culture and climate, noting that a decade ago, more than 60,000 school days were lost due to suspensions. Last year, that number was reduced to less than 3,000, he said.
The Board of Education this year eliminated "random wanding,'' or searches using metal detectors. And Beutner said he plans to recommend eliminating the use of pepper spray and a policy that allows carotid holds -- which he wants to see finalized prior to the fall semester.
"These actions are just part of the picture," the superintendent emphasized. "Los Angeles Unified has to look much deeper at all the practices in schools, in which school police are only one part."
Besides looking at safety officers on school campuses, Beutner said LAUSD is taking a close look at its spending as the district waits on more information about the state's budget plans, which have been in flux due to the global pandemic. All schools in the state closed in March due to stay-at-home orders protecting against the spread of COVID-19.
"We will tighten our belts as the funding outlook is dire," he said. "This budget uncertainty at the state level informs our approach to school budgets since more than 90% of the funds at schools in Los Angeles Unified are provided by the state of California."
Beutner announced a hiring freeze for any personnel who do not work at schools, in addition to a travel and conference ban, and he added a layer of requirements on expenditures of $50,000 or greater.
"We do know with certainty, students will have great needs when the new school years starts on Aug. 18," Beutner said, noting that the demand for mental health support and other services for students who have been out of school are expected to increase, in addition to the cost of purchasing personal protective equipment, such as masks -- to be bought in a bulk order with San Diego Unified.
Beutner emphasized that the financial review is a bottom's-up approach that identifies possible savings in every department to "make sure every nickel is being spent to help students learn" and help students catch up on what they've missed.
"Students who aren't capable readers in elementary school will carry that burden with them the rest of their lives. We cannot allow a health crisis to become an education crisis which causes irreparable harm to children," he said.
The superintendent did not comment on whether schools will physically reopen to students on Aug. 18 or if learning will remain in digital format. Beutner has said any plan for returning to schools must carefully be conducted with health officials, labor partners and families in the midst of the pandemic.