Series: Schoolyard Sheriffs
Policing Kids in Antelope Valley Schools
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies disproportionately contact, cite and arrest Black students in the Antelope Valley, according to a new report by the county Inspector General’s Office. And those students are also disproportionately suspended and expelled at higher rates than other racial groups, the report said.
The analysis was spurred by a yearlong investigation into allegations of racial discrimination in Antelope Valley high schools by LAist and ProPublica. Reviewing data for the 2018-19 school year, our investigation found that Black teenagers accounted for 60% of deputy contacts in Lancaster high schools, although they made up only about 20% of the enrollment in those schools.
Inspector General Max Huntsman’s office reviewed Sheriff’s Department data for the 2019-20 school year and said its findings corroborated the news organizations’ investigation. In addition, it said the problem may be worse than the numbers indicate, due to flaws in the department’s data-collection system.
The report also slammed the Sheriff’s Department for failing to provide any evidence for claims it made that challenged the validity of our analysis.
“The practice of making public denials without factual support is fundamentally inconsistent with California law controlling the conduct of law enforcement officers,” investigators wrote. “The ProPublica analysis appears fundamentally correct.”
In an emailed statement, the Sheriff’s Department told LAist that it couldn’t provide immediate comment because it had not yet fully reviewed the report.
“What we can say is Sheriff Alex Villanueva takes allegations of misconduct very seriously and we will provide a more detailed response once we review these findings,” the department wrote.
The Inspector General’s Office presented its findings to the Civilian Oversight Commission on Thursday. This was the same body that had asked the Inspector General’s Office to look into the matter in the wake of the news organizations’ report.
Just after the article was first published last fall, Capt. John Lecrivain, the head of the Lancaster sheriff’s station, told commissioners that the investigation was “a very entertaining piece of fiction.” He struck a different tone at the Thursday meeting.
“This is a serious concern to the department, and we relish the opportunity to be involved in the discussion and find some solutions,” he said, adding that the department had looked back at its data and “we did find that there was some disparity in the contacts with the students.”
Assistant Inspector General Mahdi Mohamed said at the meeting that the Sheriff’s Department also did not comply with investigators’ request from nine months ago for information — including body-worn camera video — related to an incident at Lancaster High School in which a 16-year-old student, MiKayla Robinson, was body slammed by a sheriff’s deputy.
Mohamed said the lack of information from the Sheriff’s Department made it hard to “investigate the reason for the deputy’s contact with the student.” He said the office finally received the body camera video in the past few days.
Robinson’s attorney, Lisa Bloom, said she filed a complaint in May against both the Antelope Valley Union High School District and the Sheriff’s Department, alleging civil rights violations. Neither the school district nor the Sheriff’s Department has responded.
“The findings of this new report that Black students are cited, arrested, suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than other students should be a wake up call,” Bloom said in a statement. “Immediate action must be taken to protect Black students from further harm.”
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department entered into a court-ordered consent decree, agreeing to reforms that included protections against racial profiling. That agreement grew out of findings from a two-year DOJ Civil Rights Division investigation, which found, in part, that deputies routinely racially profiled Black residents in the Antelope Valley.
The data examined by the Inspector General’s Office and by LAist and ProPublica came from the Sheriff’s Automated Contact Reporting system.
Huntsman’s office analyzed nearly 17,000 contacts by Lancaster station deputies — who are assigned to Antelope Valley high schools as school resource officers — during the 2019-20 school year. Roughly 400 of those contacts were conducted at or around 11 high schools in the valley.
Investigators said the SACR system “is inaccurate and significantly underreports significant data.” In a report issued this month, the office found the Sheriff’s Department underreported more than 50,000 stops and more than 70,000 arrests between 2018 and 2019.
“Any findings based upon this review of SACR data likely understates the issues identified in this report, particularly those relating to racial disparities,” investigators wrote. They called on the Sheriff’s Department to improve the system’s accuracy.
The inspector general’s analysis found that Black students made up about 67% of the contacts made by Lancaster station deputies but only about 18% of total school enrollment.
In comparison, Latino students — who make up the majority of the school’s population, about 64% — accounted for only 26% of deputy contacts.
Black Students Cited and Arrested More
The inspector general’s analysis also showed that Black students were issued nearly 70% of all citations resulting from contact with deputies. Black students also made up nearly 60% of all arrests resulting from contact with deputies.
The report said these findings were consistent with the news organizations’ previous reporting.
Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Ruppert, team leader of the Lancaster station’s school safety unit, told LAist and ProPublica that the vast majority of deputies’ contacts on campuses are based on referrals from school staff and administrators — rather than being initiated by law enforcement. At the time of the original story, Antelope Valley Union High School District administrators did not respond to interview requests or to a list of written questions.
The inspector general’s office, though, found “the majority of school contacts were self-initiated by deputies.” However, it noted that deputies may not be coding calls correctly.
Huntsman’s office also found that Black and Latino high school-age youth had fewer recorded contacts with deputies outside of school than inside.
Notably, white students had more contact with deputies outside of school than inside.
Additionally, the Inspector General’s Office found that Black students made up 54% of total suspensions in the 2019-20 school year.
About 1 in 7 Black students at the high schools have been suspended, a rate more than twice the statewide average.
Black and Latino students each made up about 47% of expulsions, though Black students were expelled at a disproportionately higher rate given that their share of the student population is so much lower.
A Call for Transparency and Training
The office listed a number of recommendations “aimed at increasing the transparency, accuracy and efficacy of oversight of School Resource Deputies and the safety of community youth.”
The investigators also recommended that the Sheriff’s Department expand its training curriculum “to educate all patrol-related deputies on their opportunity to act as informal counselors and gateways for at-risk youth to non-criminal County services.”
Last June, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion requiring the county CEO to report back on a plan to collect and publish data relating to deputy contacts with youths.
The news organizations’ investigation last fall profiled Barron Gardner, a high school history teacher working for Antelope Valley district. Gardner had become a reluctant spokesperson for a growing movement, driven primarily by Black and Latino residents, to get LASD deputies off school campuses.
On Thursday, Gardner said over the phone that he believed the numbers in the inspector general’s report “aren’t any surprise” to school staff and Antelope Valley residents.
“I could have guessed those numbers off the top of my head,” he said.
Gardner also said he wished the inspector general’s report — in addition to recognizing that his Black students were overpoliced — gave more context for the issues that his Black students face. He listed some: “homelessness, foster care, parents and prisons” — and systemic racism. Gardner said all are factors that prevent Black students from accessing socio-emotional and mental health resources.
“This is what we think is the best way to deal with it — with cops,” he said.