After a school safety officer opened fire on a car last week, killing 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez, activists and community groups have begun pushing the Long Beach Unified School District to rethink how it handles campus security.
“My students heard that shot and they saw this happen,” said Luke Higbee, a Millikan High School teacher who spoke out at an LBUSD school board meeting Wednesday.
“The biggest injustices our students face are not in the classroom,” Higbee said, it’s the money spent on school safety officers, “who are not keeping our students safe.”
A bloc of groups including Black Lives Matter Long Beach, Long Beach Forward and the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition have begun demanding reforms, including dismantling the district’s armed security force, which includes just over a dozen school safety officers. School safety officers are not full-fledged police officers with powers to make arrests or investigate crimes. But they function as a quasi-police force, providing an armed response in the event of a school shooting and working closely with the Long Beach Police Department when an incident on campus requires a law enforcement response. Ultimately, they answer to the LBUSD’s superintendent.
But at Wednesday night’s meeting, a two-hour parade of speakers overwhelmingly said they wanted a change. At times, anger spilled out.
“Growing up it was my dream to work for this district,” Higbee said. “I’ve never been so disappointed that this district’s policies and this district’s own employee murdered a member of our community.”
Police and prosecutors are still deciding whether to file criminal charges, but the district has distanced itself from Eddie F. Gonzalez, the school safety officer they say shot Rodriguez. Moments before Wednesday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Jill Baker announced he had been fired for violating district policy, which bars officers from shooting at moving vehicles or fleeing suspects.
“The actions of one employee do not represent our thousands of employees who work each day to provide our students the best education possible,” Baker said.
Activists and Rodriguez’s family, however, have pressed for further action.
Longtime education advocate and LBUSD parent Jerlene Tatum said Rodriguez’s family asked her to address the board on their behalf. She said there’s been a push to reform the district’s safety and disciplinary measures for years.
“Eight years ago I was standing outside this building with a bunch of youth and community members,” she said. “We were talking about punitive versus restorative practices. Since then so much work has been done that when I look back and think about what happened last Monday … it’s all of our fault. We’re all responsible for that young lady’s death … I hope this changes how we handle policy and processes in this district.”
The most common request among speakers on the issue was for the district to disarm its school safety officers.
Lilia Ocampo told the board that she’s been heartbroken since the shooting, having known Rodriguez since she was a little girl.
“She was my neighbor,” she said. “It hurts me that a mother has to leave her child orphaned. It’s not okay. … I ask that there be no more weapons. I think there are better routes.”
Jane Gould, the reverend at St. Luke’s Episcopalian Church in Long Beach, delivered a letter signed by more than 100 faith leaders requesting changes to the district’s policies.
“Mona’s murder is not the result of one person who made a bad choice,” she said. “It resulted from institutional decisions that do not protect the safety of our students, create equity or enhance education.”
At the end of the meeting, two LBUSD board members signaled that there will be a deep debate over how to move forward.
“This is a time for us to step up as a district, and our board is committed to that,” Board President Juan Benitez said. “We will commit to formal spaces for listening but also to proactively taking action and to engage in difficult decisions. … It’s about re-envisioning and redefining what school safety looks like.”
Board member Doug Otto said that the decision over whether to discontinue the use of armed officers isn’t cut and dry.
“There’s a lot of people saying no guns on campus, no safety officers, get rid of all that,” he said. “I don’t know the actual numbers but in Long Beach and in the schools, crime has gone up in the last year. We need to have a way to keep our kids safe, and that very well may include the kinds of things we’ve been doing in the past.”
Otto called the issue of how to keep kids safe from fights on campus or in the surrounding areas was a “difficult question” that didn’t come with easy answers. Police say Rodriguez had initiated a fight with a 15-year-old girl near Millikan High School before Gonzalez intervened, broke up the fight, and ultimately fired on Rodriguez and two others trying to flee the scene in a car.
“This is something we’re going to have to think about very carefully, with data,” Otto said. “We’ll listen to our community, and we began to do that tonight, but I don’t think this is the end of it.”
The next LBUSD Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Oct. 20.
What are school safety officers and when do they have authority to shoot people?