Transforming School Discipline in Los Angeles

After a campaign by Black and brown youth and their families, supported by grassroots organizers affiliated with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a core Schott grantee partner, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in early 2021 agreed to limit police presence in schools, ban the use of pepper spray on students, and divert funds to improve Black and Latinx students’ education outcomes.

Thanks to grassroots action focused over the past year but with origins more than a decade ago, LAUSD shifted $25 million from policing — and added $11 million more — to support students, not criminalize them. This plan enacted a long-standing community demand for “Counselors not Cops,” and is a first step towards replacing school police with more effective strategies for student safety.

Student protesters in Los Angeles

As student leader Kahlila Williams put it, “This victory ensures that police will no longer be on our campuses to harass Black youth, and it invests the $25 million we cut from school police into resources like counselors, psychiatric social workers, and restorative justice coordinators to help students thrive.”

This win is the latest in a string of escalating organizing victories, each building on the previous. In 2013, LAUSD banned “willful defiance” suspensions for all grades, as California banned them statewide for grades K-3 (which would later be expanded to K-8). In 2014, LAUSD police agreed to stop citing students for minor offenses like tardiness or dress code infractions. Soon therafter, they returned the military-grade weaponry the department had received from the federal government. In 2019 school board voted to stop school officials from conducting “random” student searches that advocates insisted were a violation of students’ dignity and far from “random” at all.

This latest victory was won by a coalition of nineteen groups, including the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, CADRE, the Community Coalition, InnerCity Struggle, and the California Association of Black School Educators — students, parents, and educators working together.

The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) unites many of those groups under a common umbrella, providing tools and a platform to magnify their collective impact. Schott has supported DSC and its member groups for more than ten years: providing resources to organizers on the ground, bringing other funders to the table, and facilitating conversations with policymakers at state and federal levels.
As is often the case, victories must not only be won: they must be defended. In September 2021 a proposal to place police back in schools returned to the LAUSD school board, but thanks to the momentum built over the previous year and the ongoing coordination across grassroots groups, the proposal was soundly rejected.

This kind of long-term organizing, community building and cross-sector collaboration is never guaranteed: it must be patiently fostered and sustained. Philanthropy has an important role to play in creating the space and capacity for that activity to happen.