One year after a California school officer killed a teenager, families fight to remove armed campus guards




  • In US
  • 2022-09-27 10:00:57Z
  • By The Guardian

On 27 September 2021, a school officer in Long Beach, California, tried to intervene in an altercation between teenagers down the street from a high school where he worked.

As a group of the youth drove off in a car, the officer fired two shots at the vehicle, striking 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez, who was a passenger and unarmed. Eight days later, she was taken off life support and died. She left behind a five-month-old baby.

The killing sparked outrage as yet another example of unwarranted deadly force by US law enforcement. But in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, the tragedy has also fueled a campaign to transform the way the public school system approaches safety, with calls from some advocates to remove armed officers from campus altogether.

In the year since Rodriguez's killing, the Long Beach unified school district (LBUSD), which is 59% Latino and 12% Black, has responded with a pledge to "reimagine safety" and has been working directly with advocates pushing for the dismantling of armed security.

The presence of armed guards at US schools has long been a highly polarizing topic. Each new school shooting prompts calls from some politicians and parents to expand law enforcement on campuses. Meanwhile, there's been growing recognition of the disproportionate negative impact of school police forces on students of color, with studies, including a recent one funded by the US justice department, suggesting that the presence of armed campus officers is not linked to deterring violence or preventing massacres, but does lead to higher suspension, arrest and expulsion rates, especially for Black youth.

"I still don't understand how a school safety officer is allowed to carry guns," said Oscar Rodriguez, the 24-year-old brother of Mona, who was not a student at the school. "What is the purpose?"

'Ineffective and harmful'

Schools across America started placing police inside their buildings in the 1960s, and the presence of armed forces on campuses has since dramatically expanded, surging after the 1999 Columbine high school mass shooting in Colorado.

But an overwhelming body of research has demonstrated the daily harms of school officers, including expanded punishments of Black students and increased physical force used against youth with disabilities. Schools with officers have significantly higher arrest rates than schools without, particularly for minor "disorderly conduct" offenses, and those arrests can alter a student's life trajectory, leading to incarceration and longterm contact with the criminal system.

Analyses of school shootings have found that the presence of an officer was not linked to a reduction in the severity of the shooting. One study suggests that having an armed officer on the scene was linked to increased casualties, since their presence can increase aggression and draw shooters who are suicidal.

"Having more school resource officers is ineffective and it hurts kids. So why do we keep turning to this approach after school shootings?" said Miriam Rollin of the Oakland, California-based non-profit National Center for Youth Law, who noted that an estimated 1.7 million students in the US attend schools that have police on campus, but no counselors.

In Long Beach, advocates had been questioning the presence of armed police on the city's school campuses for years. School district data obtained by advocates suggest that from 2018 to 2020, school safety citations listed Black students as "suspects" more than twice as often as white students. Black youth were also suspended at a rate roughly five times greater than white students, one report found.

"Black kids are getting pushed out and they're getting handcuffed," said Dr Kim Tabari, a Long Beach parent and co-lead of Safer LBUSD, a campaign pushing for reforms. "Officers treat them like young prisoners, not students."

(A district spokesperson said the schools have stopped issuing citations to students.)

Enchantra Baldwin, whose six children have attended LBUSD schools, said her oldest son, who liked to wear baggy clothes, was frequently harassed: "If boys look a certain type, the officers approach them as criminals. It frustrated him, because he was like, 'Mom, why me?' And I'd tell him it was because of how he dressed. He'd say, 'I should be able to express myself.'"

She said he was often stopped and questioned, and at times handcuffed, making him want to drop out. But when she moved him to a different high school that had fewer officers, he no longer faced issues.

As the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd ignited calls to defund the police, racial justice advocates in Long Beach successfully petitioned the school district to entirely end its contract with the local police department, removing officers who had long been stationed inside the schools.

It was a significant moment in a years-long fight. But the victory was short lived.

'Capacity to murder'

Although LBUSD removed sworn city police from schools, around sixteen armed "school safety officers" employed by the district continued to patrol its campuses.

It was one of those officers, Eddie Gonzalez, 52, who shot Rodriguez last year. Gonzalez was working to provide "safe passage for students" leaving Millikan high school when he opened fire, according to the district. Cellphone video showed the altercation was over when he shot into the car.

The Long Beach board of education swiftly fired Gonzalez, who was hired eight months prior, saying he violated policies prohibiting officers from shooting at fleeing people or cars. He is now facing murder charges.

Advocates who had fought to remove city police from campuses soon learned that the policies for school officers allowed them to carry out similar functions, including permitting lethal force for "self defense" and physical force when "necessary to overcome resistance".

"Their responsibility is to protect students, yet they have the capacity to murder them," said Christopher Covington, co-lead of Safer LBUSD, which formed after Rodriguez's killing to support her family and to call for dismantling of the armed force. "If students have altercations, they could potentially be killed because of one trigger-happy person. No student or child should have weapons used against them."

The shooting reignited the debate about the officers' presence. The district conducted focus groups with families and reported that youth from heavily policed neighborhoods had more discomfort and fear about the presence of officers on campus and would feel safer if they were removed.

DonoVan Baldwin, a 17-year-old senior and Enchantra's youngest son, said it seemed school officers do little other than drive around, noting that it was usually teachers or other staff who break up fights. After Rodriguez's killing, he became more concerned about armed personnel: "It's disgusting to me that you could kill a child. And it just makes you question whether they're really necessary? They don't ever do anything, but when they do step in, then someone gets killed? The one time you do get involved, a life is taken."

DonoVan said he has had no run-ins with the school officers, but recalled one time when a local officer stopped him on the street while he was heading home from a laundromat and yelled at him to get down. The officer said he "matched the description" of a man who was in his 30s. DonoVan was 13. "I've always just had a really bad feeling about police officers. I don't think of security when I see them. I just don't trust them and would rather solve my own problems, if I can, before I call them."

"No one should have guns. It's not like we're in a war," DonoVan continued. "Instead of putting so much money into guns, the schools should fund the schools. Fix the bathrooms, fix the classrooms. Our ACs don't work. A lot of our books are old or ripped apart."

Tatum Henry, another 17-year-old senior, said she didn't know school officers had firearms until Rodriguez's killing: "We've seen what happens when the wrong person has a gun and they misuse their authority." She said there were better ways to handle conflicts: "Kids cause fights and problems because they have stuff going on and they need an outlet to let it out. We need more programs to help them with what they're going through."

Dismantling campus police

LBUSD officials say they have recently increased mental health services for students, enhanced restorative justice efforts, brought on two mobile response clinicians who can address crises instead of officers and purchased software to help officials audit "calls for service".

But the district has rejected Safer LBUSD's core demand - to abolish campus police and build a new school climate department focused on safety, not punishment.

Chris Callopy, executive director of the Teachers Association of Long Beach, said some teachers responded to Rodriguez's death by calling for disarmament, though others have expressed concerns about how long it would take for outside police to show up to stop a mass shooter or whether teachers would end up taking on more duties without officers.

Dr Tiffany Brown, deputy superintendent of LBUSD who has met regularly with Safer LBUSD, said the district believes armed officers were still necessary and beneficial, saying they were useful during dismissal and arrival and at large events, and that when they intervene in conflicts, it can help the schools avoid involving outside police: "We view them as contributing to the sense of safety both for the adults and students. There is a whole lot of alternative supports and structures that would need to be in place if we were to take a very dramatic step like having no law enforcement."

If Long Beach did eliminate armed officers, it would not be the first. From May 2020 to June 2022, at least 50 US school districts dismantled their school police programs or cut their budgets, though faced with backlash, at least eight reversed course and restored officers in some capacity, according to Education Week.

People visit a makeshift memorial to the victims of a shooting at Robb elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
People visit a makeshift memorial to the victims of a shooting at Robb elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.  

The Oakland, California, school district eliminated its police in 2020 and has since established culture and climate ambassadors who work with onsite therapists and social workers. And calls to police have not increased, but rather dropped dramatically - from 1,814 calls in the 2019-20 school year to 134 in 2021-22, according to the Black Organizing Project, which pushed for the change.

While the massacre in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas - which left 19 students and two teachers dead - has made some communities more resistant to police-free schools, advocates have noted the catastrophic failures of police, who had been trained to respond to active shooters, yet waited for more than an hour to confront the gunman.

"People still want to lean into policing as a measure of safety for schools after Uvalde, even though Uvalde laid bare what we've been saying: police don't prevent violence. At best, they come after something violent or tragic has happened or is already in progress. We need other kinds of safety measures," said Monifa Bandele, who is on the leadership team for the Movement for Black Lives.

And even with Long Beach schools ending their city police contract, Jerlene Tatum, co-lead of Safer LBUSD and a Millikan high parent, said she has continued to see an officer parked outside the school in the morning when she drops her son off: "What's their purpose? Who are they protecting - the school, the students, the community? Are they protecting the students from each other? To me it's like an intimidation."

Brown said that the district has not changed any specific officer policies, procedures or training since Rodriguez's killing, and was focused on rebuilding relationships after long Covid shutdowns: "That will promote more of a sense of safety for our students than any one procedure within the school safety office."

Oscar Rodriguez, Mona's brother, said the family was still processing the loss a year later, and that he wanted his sister remembered as the "happy kid who brought light to all of us". He said it felt as if school and city officials weren't interested in making changes after the killing, and that he hoped the district would consider disarming officers: "They take the law into their own hands … If the school can't protect their kids, it's a shame. They're students, they're children, and at the end of the day, they're family. They should treat them like family."

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