Getting Cops Out of California Schools

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This series is made possible by a grant from in support of teen journalists and the series editor, Katina Paron.

For Stephanie Lopez, school is not a safe place.

The 17-year-old routinely witnessed the school resource officers (SROs)—armed, district-funded trained police officers—who filled Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, criminalize students of color, including her brother. 

Once, after her older brother bumped into an officer in the hall, he was immediately interrogated and asked for ID. This shook Lopez, who is Latina.

“Being treated as a criminal messed up my mentality for a while. I really did not want to go to school anymore,” Lopez said, emphasizing that she constantly feels at-risk around SROs. 

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While her classes are strictly online for the rest of the year, like many schools throughout the country, Lopez’s advocacy against SROs will impact her life in the fall. Through her work with Brown Issues, a youth-led advocacy organization for students of color, her neighboring district agreed to cut their campus’ SROs from eight per school to three.

“We’re shifting the normalization of having cops on campus,” said Alma Lopez (no relation to Stephanie), who is the faculty advisor for Brown Issues. “We’re pushing our administrators to think differently.” 

SROs began showing up at her predominately black and Latinx-school as a security precaution after the mass school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Newtown, Connecticut.

Getting Cops Out of California Schools
School resource officers (SROs)—armed, district-funded trained police officers—commonly criminalize students of color. (Donald Lee Pardue)

However, according to The Brookings Institute, many students—including young women, African-American students and students who have experienced school violence—report feeling less safe in schools with the presence of SROs. 

This is why Lopez started advocating at school board meetings for SROs to be replaced with adult hall monitors. By involving staff who would get to know the students instead of giving them citation, Lopez is looking for a more holistic approach to student management.

“Why is it that we can afford cops on campus, but look at our desks, look at our books?” she asks. “Can’t the money be used differently?” 

In her visits to the school board meetings, Lopez sheds light on the school-to-prison pipeline, a system in which students of color are disproportionately arrested for small misbehaviors in schools across her state. 

Even while school is out during quarantine, Lopez uses digital tools to continue advocating for “Counselors not Cops.” She posts social media blogs and tags elected officials in posts to continue directing their attention to this issue. 

According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, during the 2015-2016 school year, black students made up only 15 percent of the student body, but over 30 percent of arrests.

And a 2017 study from Education Week notes that “African American girls are more than 1.5 times as likely as white boys to be arrested.” This disparity is due to the way black women and girls are stereotyped as disruptive and angry, The African American Policy Forum reports.

Although SROs are still at Luther Burbank High School, Lopez has made her school question their security choices and has empowered her peers.

“She wants to make sure other students are seen. She knows that her voice matters and the impact it has. Not only when it comes to ‘waking the giants’—but also when waking other young brown people who may normalize the conditions we live in,” the faculty adviser said.

Lopez is not willing to give up until all SROs are removed. Eventually, she wants to become a school board member.

“When they’re growing up, a lot of young brown women don’t have leaders because a lot of Latinas are put into the world where they have to be moms and cook and clean for their family,” Lopez said, “One more woman helping out the community will inspire the next generation.” 

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Nadia Farjami is a student journalist from California. She’s been published in The New York Times and was a reporter for The Trace’s “Since Parkland Project.” She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of her high school’s newspaper.