Parent Protests Against School Closures Turn Violent at Oakland School Board Meeting

A police officer strikes a man with a baton after protesters crossed a barricade at an Oakland Unified School District board meeting on Oct. 23, 2019, at La Escuelita Elementary in Oakland. (Courtesey of Stracey Gordon)

Oakland Unified School District police drew batons and used force as they arrested six people after several protesters charged a barrier at Wednesday night's school board meeting at La Escuelita Elementary School.

All six were charged with disturbing the peace and taken to school district police offices in West Oakland. One of those arrested was also injured and taken to a hospital.

Early in the evening, about 30 combined OUSD security and police officers, overseen by OPD Police Chief Jeff Godown, arrived to secure the perimeter of the school where the meeting was held. Parents, children and teachers entering had to turn over food or drink and any musical instruments to enter the auditorium. Inside, officers flanked a newly erected barrier around the main stage where board members sit and conduct business.

Chief Godown said the police presence was necessary because parents and teachers had successfully disrupted several earlier board meetings, shutting one down. But the police presence created tension from the start during public comment.

"In this sanctuary city, in the home of the Panthers, I am strictly opposed to police officers here to police the community at our meeting," Mike Hutchinson said.

Stracey Gordon, parent of a Kaiser Elementary student, watches other parents, teachers and community members speak at an Oct. 23, 2019 Oakland Unified School district board meeting where police arrested and injured protesters.
Stracey Gordon, parent of a Kaiser Elementary student, watches other parents, teachers and community members speak at an Oct. 23, 2019, Oakland Unified School District board meeting, where police arrested and injured protesters. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Assata Olugbala likened the situation to racist policies she experienced in the South.

"I'm having anxiety right now," Olugbala said. "I grew up under Jim Crow, I grew up on the bus. I had to sit behind a barrier. I could not move beyond that barrier. This is what this feels like."

Parent Stracey Gordon from Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Elementary, which is being closed and merged with another school, warned the board she is in this fight for the long haul.

"We will continue to disrupt these meetings and there will be no more business as usual!" Gordon said.

Angry parents and staff from various schools across the district, calling themselves Oakland Not For Sale, are demanding that the school district halt all school closures and consolidations until 2022 to allow time for more community input on those decisions and district finances.

A police officer strikes a man with a baton after protesters crossed a barricade at an Oakland Unified School District board meeting on Oct. 23, 2019, at La Escuelita Elementary in Oakland.
Police guard an empty stage at an Oct. 23, 2019, Oakland Unified School District board meeting after board members moved upstairs and broadcast the rest of the meeting to angry parents, teachers and community members below. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

The school board was able to finish the rest of its meeting Wednesday night in an upstairs room separate from the public. They eventually took comments from the remaining crowd through a microphone at a podium in the auditorium below.

The evening's civil disobedience was carefully planned: The goal was to paralyze the board from conducting business. The clash with police was livestreamed by some, while others filmed and shared it via social media.

Earlier this week the newly formed coalition also shut down a City Council education committee meeting. The group has the support of the teachers union, the Oakland Education Association, which is sending members to help with the attempted shutdowns.

It's the latest tactic in a drawn-out battle over the OUSD's controversial plan to shutter or merge up to 24 schools.

Last year, parents and students from Roots International Academy, which was on the chopping block, also took over a school board meeting. Oakland teachers took up Roots' cause, making opposition to school closures part of their rallying cry during a weeklong strike. In support of the striking teachers, the Oakland City Council also voted to oppose school closures.

None of that stopped the district from shuttering Roots at the end of the school year.

Now, parents from Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Elementary, which is slated for closure at the end of this school year, are leading the charge against the district's closure plans, spearheading Oakland Not For Sale.

Kaiser parent Gordon said even if the district does close Kaiser, she wants to warn other parents.

"We need to stop it now. It's been traumatic, and its been hard for my kids. I don't want anyone else's kids to go through this. I'm so torn apart by what's happened that I'm inspired to keep fighting," Gordon said.

Targeting Charter Schools

On Monday evening, Kaiser Elementary parent Alicia Johnson donned a blond wig, cat-eye glasses and a black-and-white herringbone jacket in preparation for attending the Oakland City Council Education Partnership Committee meeting. The meeting had nothing to do with school closures, but she and other Kaiser parents didn't care: They planned to shut the meeting down.

Kaiser Elementary parent Alicia Johnson dressed up as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for an anti-charter school skit
Kaiser Elementary parent Alicia Johnson dressed up as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for an anti-charter school skit (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Johnson said she had dressed as Betsy DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education who has been accused of championing the privatization of public schools.

Johnson and other parents say that closing district-run schools will only push more students toward charter schools, which in turn will drain district schools of badly needed funds.

OUSD reported in April that 27% of district students attend charter schools, the highest proportion of any large district in California.

As Monday night's meeting got underway, the theatrics began. Children hung banners reading "Oakland Not For Sale" above City Councilman Dan Kalb’s seat, whose district includes Kaiser Elementary. Kaiser parents bellowed lines from an anti-charter school skit.

“You might wonder why I’m here,” Johnson shouted. “I see councilman Dan Kalb. He supports closing schools in Oakland!”

Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb was targeted by protesters. Kalb said he does not support school closures.
Oakland City Councilman Dan Kalb was targeted by protesters. Kalb said he does not support school closures. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

As the city clerk tried to regain control, boos drowned her out and the play continued until the meeting was adjourned. Hecklers dogged Kalb as he exited the room.

“You’re perpetuating lies about me!” Kalb shouted as he left.

Kalb said he also has concerns about the pace at which the district is consolidating schools.

“It’s one thing over a period of several years to close a few schools, that happens all over the state on occasion, when the population dips down," Kalb said. "It’s another thing if you’re closing a lot of schools over a short period. That has a tremendous impact on parents, on kids, on our community. I think it is not appropriate and I don’t support that.”

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Criticism of Protests

School board member Jody London criticized the protesters' Monday actions, writing in a statement that it is "unfortunate that a small group continues to put their self-interest above the broader interests of the children in our city, and is trying to stop the democratically elected School Board and City Council from conducting business, which we are required to do in public. "

Lakisha Young, who heads the parent group The Oakland REACH, also had little patience for the tactic of shutting down board meetings.

Young said The Oakland Reach had attended an earlier school board meeting hoping to discuss opportunities for low-income students to access higher-quality schools, but the meeting was shut down before Reach parents got a chance to speak.

"You know what I wanted to say that night? A school closure is not the worst thing that can happen to your kids. The worst thing that can happen to your kids is a bad school."

The goal of the district's restructuring plan, called the Blueprint for Quality Schools, is to provide more quality schools for all students. It argues that reducing the total number of schools by as many as 24 will allow it to reinvest savings in schools that are struggling.

The district points to Elmhurst United, a newly merged middle school, as an example of how its plan can work. Teachers at the new school told KQED they were pleasantly surprised by smaller class sizes, while the principal said his students now have access to new classes like Spanish and music.

Inside City Hall Monday night, Oakland parent Gerald Sanders defended the protest actions.

“The City Council voted to support the teachers strike and in that, said they were against closures," Sanders said. "We want the City Council persons, if they passed that resolution and said they were against closures, be true to yourself, respect yourself. That’s all.”

Oct. 24: This story was corrected to reflect that protesters who were arrested were taken to school district police offices, not Santa Rita jail. And that the police presence included OUSD security officers as well as OUSD police.

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