Youth organizers Charles Knight, Brandon Coles and Imani Snodgrass (L–R) appear at a press conference in June 2020, a week before the vote to eliminate Oakland's school police force. (Courtesy Black Organizing Project)
Amidst last year's nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, all eyes turned to Oakland as the Black Organizing Project (BOP) won a battle almost a decade in the making.
Passing the George Floyd Resolution unanimously on June 24, the Oakland School Board committed to entirely eliminating the Oakland School Police Department (OSPD) and reinvesting its $6 million budget into a new safety plan focused on supporting students and fighting the school-to-prison pipeline.
Nine months later, Oakland is at the forefront of a nationwide movement as an ever-increasing number of jurisdictions are similarly deciding to decrease or eliminate school police, according to the Justice Policy Institute. Last month, Los Angeles student activists and community members emerged victorious as the Board of Education voted to cut a third of Los Angeles School Police Department’s officers, ban the use of pepper spray on students, and reinvest some of the department’s funding to improve the education of Black students. Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and Portland have all taken steps to redirect school police funding as well.
Yet even as organizers in Oakland celebrate, they do so with the knowledge that this is not a conclusive triumph but rather the start of a new and long undertaking. BOP communications director Jasmine Williams says the group foresees the implementation of the George Floyd Resolution being a two- to three-year process. “But also noting that this has been hundreds of years of systemic oppression and very apparent anti-Blackness within school spaces,” she adds. “We know that beyond three years there's going to be work that needs to be done.”
And therein lies the largest disconnect between sensational headlines about major structural changes and the real work that goes into implementing them. The Minneapolis City Council attracted viral attention last summer when they pledged to dismantle the police department that killed George Floyd—a commitment that fell flat just months later. But the BOP is in this for the long haul, and Oakland schools are serving as a case study for how defunding and abolition efforts can actually achieve their goals.
What Will Replace School Police?
The first and latest phase of the new safety plan to replace the OSPD was approved in December, with six of seven board members voting in favor and outgoing District 3 Director Jumoke Hinton Hodge abstaining. Key to the new plan is a policy for responding to mental health emergencies, in which social workers or psychologists will work with a student experiencing a mental health crisis rather than an OSPD officer.
The new plan also calls for the establishment of a Culture and Climate Department, which will transition school security officers who are currently employed by the department but are not sworn police officers. School security officers will be retrained to mediate conflicts using restorative justice practices and to build relationships with students. (As of 2020, the Oakland School Police Department employed a police chief, seven officers and two sergeants, as well as 47 unarmed school security officers.)
Under the new plan, Oakland Police Department officers would still be called in certain situations, including bomb threats, active shooters, physical and sexual assaults, and medical emergencies. Those officers are employed by the city and not the district—a caveat that raised many concerns from school officials, educators, and school board members, particularly Director Hinton Hodge.
Last March, a group of 28 school staff and board members wrote a letter in opposition to the BOP’s proposals. “Unlike OPD officers, who come with guns, OUSD police officers come trained with de-escalation and restorative practices. They know our schools, leaders and families and treat our students with the respect and empathy that they deserve,” they wrote.
The BOP is more than aware of these concerns. “In 2017, we had data that showed school police being called on students over 6,000 times by administrators. And so in response to that, we created the Black Sanctuary Pledge that we administered to teachers and school site staff that said, ‘I pledge not to call police, ICE, or Homeland Security on Black and brown students for nonviolent issues,’” says BOP Communications Director Jasmine Williams. “Through this strategy that we primarily spearheaded with the Oakland Education Association, we were able to struggle through authentic conversations.”
“We know that teachers are coming into this space ultimately wanting to support students and families… But unintentionally or intentionally, they can also be complicit in the school-to-prison pipeline, if they continue to call police on students,” she adds. “What we found from those conversations was that teachers were struggling with that too. They don't really want to call the police, but they don't have anyone else to call. They had no teacher’s aide for support, or there were barely any counselors on campus.”
On June 10, a different group of 45 school administrators released their own letter, in support of the efforts to eliminate the OSPD. “We seek to provide young people with access and opportunity; the OUSD Police Department offers neither, and its continued existence is funded at the expense of programs far better suited to attending to the academic, social, and health-related needs of our young people,” reads the second letter. “Some will say that the OUSD Police Department is necessary because it is used. When school leaders are given only a hammer, they will treat every problem like a nail.”
The group addressed concerns brought up by the first letter, which were similar to those of Director Hinton Hodge. “If, as has been asserted elsewhere, OPD is unable to provide adequate service to our schools, then this represents a further call for action and change. We should not subsidize these perceived shortcomings at the expense of our school communities,” they wrote. “Allyship requires commitment. Values, like dreams, must be upheld lest they be deferred.”
Director Gary Yee is one of three remaining members on an otherwise entirely newly elected school board who was part of the unanimous vote to eliminate the OSPD, and is one of the four board members who had voted against such proposals last March. He says his reservations came from a lack of a safety plan to replace the department at the time.
“There may have been some cases in which it may have been unnecessary to call the school police, but it was probably easier than to find the appropriate department or staff member to respond quickly to an emergency,” Yee said, echoing the sentiments of the second letter. To abolish the department would “require a retraining of the school site administration who didn’t know who to refer different kinds of incidents to. And we have that plan developed now.”
“In the arguments in favor of disbanding the school police department, I did not hear any kind of direct descriptions of incompetence or hostility or anything by our police force. I just want to underscore that I think our Oakland school police actually performed very professionally,” Yee adds. “This is not a criticism of them as people. But it's more the system-wide resetting of the means by which we intervene in situations where in the past we've called the police.”
No Official Layoff Date Given for School Officers
Despite the deadline set forth by the George Floyd Resolution to eliminate the department by Jan. 1, 2021, district officers remained employed by OUSD. As of last December, $2.8 million of the former OSPD budget was to be invested in the new programs set out by the safety plan, including trainings and the new culture and climate positions. The remaining $3.4 million of the approximately $6.2 million OSPD budget was expected to be paid out in salaries and other compensation to officers, according to a report in Oaklandside.
OUSD officials declined to give KQED an official layoff date or confirm updated salary figures as of March, making for an unusual situation where school police are being paid for not working in schools without official explanation. However, police union disputes have disrupted district decisions before. A 2002 decision to eliminate the department and reassign its responsibilities to OPD, due to budget cuts, was reversed in a 2005 court ruling which determined that the union representing OSPD officers was not given sufficient opportunity to negotiate the terms of that transition.
Former OSPD chief Jeff Godown, who declined KQED’s request for comment, was supportive of the efforts to eliminate the department last summer. He has now been tasked with dismantling the department and getting rid of its cars, weapons, and equipment.
Even in Distance Learning, School Police Intervene
Despite OUSD and many other districts across the nation projecting the continuation of distanced learning for the remainder of this school year, the issues of policing in schools haven’t disappeared with online class. During the pandemic, students in states like Colorado, New Jersey and Maryland have seen police show up at their doors because of toy guns seen by their teachers in Zoom class, and a 15-year-old girl was sent back to juvenile detention for missing online assignments in Michigan last July.
“They're not on campus, but the policing of students and of Black and brown students in particular still happens. We still see cases over 2020 of students being detained for not turning in assignments or getting policed for not attending their virtual class,” says Williams. “Our fight has always been against the policing and surveillance and criminalization culture that contributes to this toxicity in school environments.”
The George Floyd Resolution is the genesis of the latest chapter of that fight in Oakland, and now time will tell if the district can live up to its commitments. If they do, their success may serve as a nationwide example for what it truly means to reimagine safety and take real steps towards dismantling structures that criminalize students across the country.
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