Students march outside San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters to demand that police officers be removed from local schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Students march outside San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters to demand that police officers be removed from local schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

During the summer of 2020 the movement to defund police forces arrived on the doorsteps of San Diego Unified. Activists made a clear demand: Remove cops from our schools.  

At the time, many school districts slashed their police budgets or disbanded their police forces entirely. San Diego Unified declined to follow suit but insisted it would embark on a thoughtful path of change.  

Now, more than 15 months later, after discussions with students and school cops, district officials have begun implementing several changes to the way officers in the district do their business. Officials say those changes will be meaningful, but they also fall completely short of what protestors were demanding in the summer of 2020.  

The most noticeable change for cops in San Diego Unified schools was designed to be just that. Officers will wear what officials have been referring to as “softer” versions of their previous uniforms. Instead of standard uniforms, school police will wear polo shirts with sewed-on versions of their badge instead of shiny metal. Their weapons will also be more concealed.  

The polo shirts aren’t totally new. Several years ago, San Diego Unified officers wore polo shirts, as the Union-Tribune reported. But as worries about school shootings grew, officers switched to the traditional blue.  

The new uniforms aren’t in schools yet because they haven’t arrived, said board president Richard Barrera. They are held up as part of ongoing global supply chain issues, he said.  

Police will also spend less time in schools as part of the reforms. Groups of officers will be assigned to clusters of schools, but no one officer will any longer be assigned to a single school.  

The president of the San Diego Unified police union previously questioned that change, saying it could damage officers’ ability to form relationships on campus 

Police will receive new training on equity – though equity training is nothing new for San Diego Unified police. Principals will also receive new trainings on the types of incidents that warrant the involvement of police and those that don’t.  

At a May board meeting, several students helped present some of the changes. Some mentioned negative interactions with school police in the past and indicated they would take a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to reform.  

“Hopefully this uniform change will also help to continuously remind them that their purpose is to serve and protect the students first instead of unintentionally creating a sense of discomfort (emphasis mine)” said Isolina Delgado, a student at Lincoln High.   

The impact of the new policies remains to be seen, but it is immediately apparent they aren’t what protestors wanted.  

Protestors’ message was simple. Take money out of your police force, and put the money into counselors and services for students. San Diego Unified is one of a small number of districts that has its own police force.  

“Policing schools creates a toxic school climate that attenuates the school-to-prison pipeline and is not necessary to cultivating school safety,” one of the lead organizers wrote in a petition at the time 

Barrera, the district’s longest-serving board member, acknowledges that the district’s reforms aren’t what activists asked for. For him, there is a clear and simple reason not to defund San Diego Unified police: He’d rather San Diego Unified-trained police officers respond to incidents on campus than San Diego city police.  

All sorts of student-specific situations come up, said Barrera. Maybe there is a fight between students; maybe an adult tries to take custody of a child they aren’t entitled to; or maybe a student makes a threat on the school.  

“Either you don’t have anybody address that situation – and that’s obviously not safe. Or you have somebody addressing it who isn’t trained and doesn’t see it as their job to ensure the safety of school students and staff. That is the kind of situation that can escalate into something that can cause harm,” he said.  

Even with San Diego Unified’s own police force, many situations have escalated quickly – especially for Black students.  

A KPBS analysis showed Black students in the district were four times more likely to be detained or arrested by school police than White students. School police were also more likely to refer White students to mental health services, the analysis found.  

My own reporting showed Black students are also the most disproportionately suspended group in the entire district.  

Barrera argues those figures would be worse if San Diego Police Department were responding to incidents on local campuses.  

But on the lawn of the San Diego Unified headquarters on July 2, 2020, protestors made it clear that school police were beyond reforming.  

“I’m here to call on the Board of Education… to basically defund [the police] completely so they can pour those funds back into the students,” said Nyaduoth Gatkuoth, a Morse High graduate, at the time. “There will be no justice and no peace until we get the change we are asking for within our school systems.” 

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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