THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
United Teachers Los Angeles jumped on the defund-the-police bandwagon last summer, but the union’s goal was to get cops out of schools rather than members out of its ranks.
But defunding the police was a bridge too far for one high school teacher.
Glenn Laird decided he would rather pay taxes for police protection of students and teachers than pay dues for the union’s anti-police campaign. He quit the union.
The union, however, was reluctant to let him go, and now Mr. Laird is fighting the organization in federal court. He is represented by lawyers from the conservative Freedom Foundation.
“It’s not about the money,” he said. “I’m only seeking $1 in damages. I just felt like the official party line had become a monotone and they disavowed anyone with a contrary opinion.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District voted July 1 to cut more than a third — $25 million — from its budget for its schools’ police force, whose officers have the same standards and powers as those on the Los Angeles Police Department. The new president of the city’s teachers union, Cecily Myart-Cruz, rejoiced.
“The school board’s action is a huge first step in the campaign for police-free schools and groundbreaking in terms of our movement for supporting Black lives in our schools,” Ms. Myart-Cruz said. “It was the power and the passion in the streets across LA and this country, uplifting the voices of Black students, educators and families that made this happen. We can’t let up. We must keep fighting for our babies and our students.”
To Mr. Laird, such revolutionary talk sounded nuts and far removed from the core principles of the union he had loved for decades.
“Trying to separate what’s political and what’s not with the union can be a very slippery thing,” he said. “I’ve worn the union red proudly. I’ve been out on the picket line with an umbrella in the rain. And that was for salaries, benefits, health care — the things the union is supposed to help — not to defund the police.”
Mr. Laird’s experience undercuts Ms. Myart-Cruz’s declarations.
His lawsuit makes the case that the best way to protect teachers and students has proved several times to be school police officers.
In a career that spans nearly four decades, now at Eagle Rock High School and previously at Fairfax High School and Richard E. Byrd Junior High School, Mr. Laird has seen firsthand the value of school police. He discusses the situations carefully and stresses repeatedly that his experiences may not be typical, but the frightening events he has seen are beyond dispute.
“Glenn Laird has witnessed students strangled, stabbed and even shot to death in his 38 years as a public school teacher,” his lawsuit begins. “In many cases, the ready presence of campus police officers was the difference between life and death.”
Mr. Laird, 60, once huddled in a locked classroom with his graphic design students for hours after gunfire rang out in the hallway. Tony Thompson, a college student who was paying a respectful visit to his alma mater, was chased down the halls by gunfire until a bullet caught him in the back and killed him.
“That was probably the most poignant example, where Tony Thompson caught a bullet in his back while running for his life,” Mr. Laird said.
Early in his teaching career, a student engaged in a fistfight was slashed in the face with a box cutter. Blood splattered around the classroom until furious and frightened classmates wrestled the attacker to the ground. School police officers arrived in minutes to provide first aid and calm the waters, Mr. Laird said.
“We were not allowed to intervene in a fistfight, and it was the kids who jumped him and put him down,” he said. “I was very grateful for the police officers who arrived so quickly and dealt with it all so professionally.”
In an incident Mr. Laird acknowledged was speculative, campus police officers deterred a disgruntled former boyfriend’s attack of a student when they found him lurking on campus. The ex-boyfriend killed the girl at her home later that day, Mr. Laird said.
In his long career, Mr. Laird said, he can recall “only a couple of LAUSD police officers who crossed the line.” He said they were promptly fired.
“I have not seen the kind of things the ‘defund the police’ rhetoric talks about,” he said. “What I have seen has been very professional. And at my schools, the officers have had a good rapport with the students. I’ve seen them after football games, late at night, the last one there, and still working, watching out for students and parents.”
In other words, the campus cops in Mr. Laird’s life have been a force for good, not evil.
When he tried to make that point with his union, the leaders scoffed, he said. He was disgusted to see union leadership wearing anti-police T-shirts during union Zoom meetings.
“They’ve had a more radical faction running for office recently,” he said. “I thought they were dismissive and insulting. In their tone and rhetoric, it became clear to me that they were spending about 50% of their time on traditional union activities and 50% on defunding the police.”
When he signed his most recent UTLA contract, Mr. Laird said, he deliberately crossed out a line that he thought unfairly limited the conditions for opting out of the union. The union sharply narrowed those windows in response to the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which ruled that unions could not compel membership and extract money from those who no longer wished to support all or some of their positions.
“They talked about Janus like it was an existential event,” Mr. Laird said.
Consequently, he declared in a letter on June 12, 2020, that he no longer considered himself to be a member of the union. The union summarily refused his resignation in a June 23 letter.
Mr. Laird was appalled by the union’s triumphant tone in July when the district’s school board cut $25 million from the police budget. As a result of the move, 20 officers, including the school police chief, resigned. More than 130 officers and their support staff were laid off last month.
Mr. Laird wrote the union a second letter in July declaring his resignation and again asked that his $89.54 monthly dues no longer be deducted from his paycheck.
On Aug. 20, he called Marcos F. Hernandez, an associate general counsel for the union. He pointed out his refusal in June to agree to the tiny window for withdrawal from the union and requested that his resignation be accepted immediately, he said.
The union continued to take its cut from his pay and never tempered either its anti-police rhetoric or, as far as Mr. Laird could tell, expressed any sorrow over the scores of people the budget cut left unemployed.
Mr. Laird sent a third letter on Dec. 14, and the union finally consented to his departure effective Dec. 20. But the union took another $89.54 from his pay in January and promised that the money would be returned at an unspecified date.
“That hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
Neither has a return to in-person learning in Los Angeles public schools. Leaders of the teachers union insist classrooms are not safe from the coronavirus. The union has stuck to that position despite multiple studies showing that schools are not major focal points for the virus and that children suffer from lost in-person learning.
Mr. Laird said he doesn’t know what the campus will be like or the sort of reception he will receive if schools reopen as scheduled in late April. Judging from the responses he has received so far from former union colleagues, he does not expect a warm welcome.
Eagle Rock High School has roughly 2,000 students. A majority are Hispanic or Filipino. One campus police officer is usually stationed at the school, but Mr. Laird said he does not know whether that will be the case next month.
Mr. Laird said he can’t imagine not teaching. He speaks warmly of relationships he has established with former students, some who contact him via social media, and of students who have won graphic design contests at national competitions.
“I do think I’m speaking for a lot of teachers, though, who are uncomfortable with the anti-police stance, and they’ve made it really difficult to speak up,” he said of the union. “Their focus isn’t on reforming something; it is on defunding and eliminating the police in their entirety.”