What Does “Defund the Police” Mean to Me?

I am a high school principal. Would you like me to spank your child with a wooden paddle? I didn’t think so.

It’s 2020 and in 19 US states (48 US states if you include private schools), I could use a paddle to spank a student “in the name of discipline.” The truth is, I would never consider doing so because there are a million other options to create a safe school environment and engage students in their own learning. Since 1995, I have been working hard at inspiring students to be their best selves, follow reasonable school rules, and above all — commit themselves to something few teens find compelling: pursuing a future that will positively impact their own lives, their community, and the global society. All this, without threat of the paddle.

In our schools and in our communities, we hear a lot about “defunding the police.” The expression means different things to different people. Many look at it as a way to weaken the police. I view it another way. I like to think of it as a way for communities to spread power and create a space where people share values that encourage them to follow the rules. Don’t get me wrong; I am not naïve enough to think we’ll all live in a utopia where no one ever wants to engage in bad behavior. But in my 25 years as a teacher and administrator, I have seen how people can work together and greatly reduce the requirement for forceful solutions — in other words, to take away the perceived need for the paddle, both in school and in the community.

Laws, norms, and customs can and should be updated when we find a better way to achieve our goals.

When I first started teaching, folks were transitioning from “dittos” (the primitive photocopies made with a machine that involved carbon paper, blue ink, wetting paper with an ammonia-based fluid, and a terrible lingering chemical smell) to photocopies made with a Xerox machine, and from movie reels to VHS video. It was considered cutting edge, teaching with my cued-up VHS video excerpts complimenting my lessons, especially when I pulled out the overhead projector and created interactive scenes with the clear plastic transparencies. Now my colleagues are working with Flip Grid vlogs (students taking videos of themselves as a way of storytelling and assessment), and using EdPuzzle (a tool to show video excerpts with built-in pauses for question-and-answer to check for understanding), all accessible from the comfort of their home on a laptop.

When teaching in southwest Louisiana in the 90s, our parish (how we refer to counties in Louisiana) was transitioning away from corporal punishment. When I started training the basketball team, I remember going on a tour of the weight room. As we passed through the hallway, several students pointed overhead and said, “That’s where Coach used to keep the paddle.” It was 1997, and the paddle wasn’t a faraway memory; it was simply the way things had been done for years. My neighbor would wax philosophically about the good that the “board of education” did for him as a kid with poor academic focus. At the time, the use of the paddle was a commonplace technique for managing behavior.

As a teacher, I had to make sure to create community with my students. We made our own norms and goals in each class, and came to agreements for the kind of classroom community we wanted to create. We agreed on the rules and consequences. Together we created a safe and welcoming community, focused on teaching and learning.

Listening, respect, and pizza can make all the difference to a school community. That’s how we practiced restorative justice.

After years of recruiting, hiring, and coaching new teachers, I made my way to Cesar Chavez Academy, a middle school in a small suburb, 20 miles south of San Francisco, called East Palo Alto. It was the early 2000s, and the city was slowly moving out of the shadow of being known as the per capita murder capital of the country. On our campus, we had two prevalent gangs: the Sureños, made up primarily of Spanish-speaking students new to the country, and Norteños, who were typically a mix of Caucasian, Black, Tongan, Samoan, and Spanish-speaking students born in the U.S. Whereas the students who self-identified as gang-affiliated composed only maybe 5% of our entire student body, they easily took 50% of my time and energy as a vice principal, charged with creating a safe and welcoming school.

The unspoken boundaries were clear. In the classroom, students coexisted without incident. Having attended school together since kindergarten, some would even consider themselves friends despite their opposing gang affiliations. However, during break, lunch, after school, and on the weekends, the rules were different. As a way to keep the campus safe, we created zones, allowing the two groups to keep the peace in the shared public spaces. The Sureños stayed in the area called the “old play structure” behind the cafeteria. The Norteños stayed clear across campus, behind three rows of buildings, relegated to the main soccer field at the front of the campus. In most cases it worked, with the occasional Norteño or Sureño leering with “mad dog” eyes across the bend in the chain link fence, after walking past one another, when leaving the cafeteria after lunch, en route to the main soccer field. I would get the call on my walkie talkie, “Go to the back field, they’re mugging each other again” — which basically meant taunting each other with their body language. After physical altercations that led to required suspensions and expulsions, alongside our staff’s frustration that we couldn’t keep our students in school, we called a truce — over pizza. Thus began our work to make the peace.

Our principal, my good friend and colleague David Herrera, and I invited the gang leaders for pizza, and we engaged in a restorative justice conversation. Students on both sides of the fight shared their respective roads to gang involvement. It often involved an older brother or cousin, and everything you’ve read about youth needing a place to feel a sense of belonging while their own family was working two or three jobs and rarely home, struggling to pay for basics like food and rent. They shared stories about their parents, worrying for their safety and begging them not to “run the streets” into the night. The more we shared stories, the more we saw the similarities. They were just kids, trying to have some fun and entertain themselves while their parents worked hard to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

The work to keep peace on campus didn’t end with that single conversation, but it was a very important first step. From there, it was about diversifying opportunities for all students to extend their friendships beyond the classroom. So, we started collaborating with the local YMCA. Enthusiastic staff members came to our campus every day during lunchtime with outdoor activities to encourage the kids to have fun together. Later, we found funds to hire the most enthusiastic of the youth leaders, Edwin Moreno, to become our restorative justice coordinator. Coming from a neighborhood in Southern California similar to East Palo Alto, he was well-aware of the tensions on a school campus without enough diversified adult intervention.

We needed to change the power structure of influence for our students. The main conversation could not continue to be about the Norteños versus the Sureños. Edwin and I went on to create two very important clubs on the school campus. We started Peer Mediators with the help of a local community-based organization called the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center. Its staff members are experts in mediation. We also started a Renaissance Team, in which students would work closely with school administrators to plan regular school-wide events such as rallies and festivals. We wanted to make sure the students who walked around campus were the ones who were promoting a positive school community, not the students who were kicked out for “bad” behavior.

We made incredible progress as a school. But we still could not keep our students safe from the realities of our streets. One weekend during the winter holiday, I got a call that one of my students was shot and killed right in front of his home. Someone drove by and asked him who he repped, and he replied “Sureño.” It was the wrong answer. In the days and years to follow, this beloved student remained our cautionary tale about why diversifying even students’ vision for themselves was vitally important. After the murder, many of our students looked at us knowingly, realizing that everything we kept telling them — about school, pursuing a career one day, and breaking the cycle of poverty — was more important than ever.

In the following years, we continued our work with the YMCA, began including other local after school youth groups such as Catholic Charities, The Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula, YCS, Peninsula Bridge and Live in Peace. We were also grateful to work with excellent sports-based programs, such as the Ravenswood Youth Soccer Club, which hosted more than 1,000 youth who played soccer on every piece of green we could help them access on our campus. We even expanded our East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring reach. Rounding out this approach was an outstanding program called Playworks. Playworks is designed to teach students how to play fairly on the playground, solving most conflicts with a healthy game of rock, paper, scissors, and empowering students with monthly class lessons about new games to introduce on the playground. The program is facilitated by a Playworks coach and a team of junior coaches. In this way, we flooded our school with positive role models and productive opportunities for our students’ free time on the playground and outside of school.

Building on the good work of our colleague and former principal, Cammie Harris, we continued implementing the Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS) model, which relies on co-defining what kind of behavior we want in our school with students, which leads to exemplary student behavior. We then teach it consistently, including interventions that are logical and understood by students. Along the way, whenever students make mistakes, we support them in finding their way back.

We also developed a familiar relationship with our dear Officer Torrey, a very tall and distinguished probation officer, who checked in with our most challenging students, sometimes twice a week, asking about their families and reminding them of the good decisions they can make to steer themselves towards a better future. Never did he come in uniform, and never did he do anything more than check in with all of us with love in his heart and encouragement in his words. Students respected Officer Torrey, not because he might be carrying a weapon, but rather because they knew they had a relationship of mutual respect.

To promote a safe and welcoming school community, we focus on the diversification of resources and relationship-building.

When coaching new teachers, we always remind them that the respect you earn as a leader in your classroom is defined by how you treat the most vulnerable students in your class. Your most astute students are always watching to ensure you are being just and fair. The minute you are not positive and precise in your expectations, or consistent in your interventions, is the minute that you lose respect. You cannot teach or learn in a classroom that does not have strong mutual respect at its core.

As school principal at East Palo Alto Academy, I have countless opportunities to call the police. If, however, I believe in the potential of all humans to become their best selves with the right interventions and support, then I know not every mistake is a criminal act. I also know that the meager interventions we as a country do provide for individuals in crisis is dramatically lacking. Too many of us call the police as a matter of necessity. If, for example, my social worker colleagues were unable to get in touch with the family in crisis, unable to get to their appointments with the minors they work with and inundated with a caseload that is not humanly possible to maintain, those crises regularly escalate into police problems. There are far too many mental health crises, requiring careful counseling and follow through, resulting in police intervention.

With that in mind, I think of defunding the police not as taking away police resources, but as diversifying them. The general population all agree that the paddle is no longer necessary, nor is it considered acceptable to use unnecessary force to respond to conflict or crisis. As a high school principal for the last five years, I have often been asked if I thought having guns on campus would help us feel safe against the potential dangers of a school shooting. People wonder why we do not have a “school resource officer,” which is the common practice of sharing a position with the local police department, on the school campus. We tried it once for a month at my former middle school, but I had loads of students asking me within the first week, “Ms. Guillaume, who called the police? Do people think we’re criminals?” We ended the program after week two.

Your local public high school is a sampling of the general public in many ways. That’s what makes it an important cornerstone of our democracy. Consequently, you need only to visit a high school to understand what can be possible in the world around you. No, we do not have a police presence on campus. With the same funds that would pay for such a position, we have three full-time colleagues that are part of a larger group known as the “Go To Team.” A school resource officer is therefore not just expensive, but not the message we want to send our students. We do not police our students, we build community with them. Our goal is to ensure we have a safe and welcoming school. In 2020, how do you keep a high school safe? The Go To Team at our school consists of exactly the kind of “diversification” that folks are calling for when they ask to defund the police (or what I prefer to call the diversification of police resources).

First, we have a full-time Manager of Social Services, a former social worker, who is charged with managing a team of mental health specialists that includes a psychiatrist, two psychiatry fellows, and a therapy team that consists of a Stanford University faculty sponsor who guides a crew of therapy interns.

Additionally, we collaborate deeply with our Restorative Justice Coordinator, made possible through a partnership with the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center (PCRC). Being connected with an organization specializing in mediations and community circles is essential. Any inkling of conflict between students, students and adults, and even between colleagues can be addressed with this invaluable resource. You want to intervene before things escalate beyond the opportunity for communication and healing.

Rounding out this team, we have two colleagues who are officially known as “Campus Supervisors,” though students know them by name and consider them among the first adults they would go to when in need. These adults are also faculty sponsors for sports and clubs, such as peer mentors and even a club, in partnership with Stanford University School of Medicine, for students interested in medicine, called the Health Career Collaborative.

Our communal approach to creating a safe and welcoming community is similar to what police departments aspire to do when they have beat officers walking their precincts, co-sponsoring community events, and connecting with people as humans who can build relationships, knowing they can turn to one another safely when in need. We practice this at our school as well, including our local East Palo Alto Police Department when we host Trick-or-Treating on campus and even the annual Egg Hunt during the spring season.

Defunding the police is not about removing power. It is about diversifying the ways a community can use that power together. In the end, it is a community free of the paddle — because it is a community that has chosen ways other than force to deal with its conflicts.

Our work at East Palo Alto Academy is sustained by our amazing community.

You can visit us at epaahs.org and our support team at epaaf.org

In my old Crowley High School basketball uniform from my teaching days in Louisiana.
Photos of the Renaissance Team sponsored “peace fence” that inspired neighbors to enthusiastically honk as they drove by.
Cesar Chavez Academy staff vs. student flag football game.
Amika and Edwin training peer mediators with the support of the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center.
The phenomenal East Palo Alto Academy “Go To Team” exemplifying diversified resources.