Plans to Scrap School Police Backed by Oakland Education Leaders

Members of the Oakland Black Youth Activists at a march, demanding answers for the CHP killing of Eric Salgado. The march began at OUSD's Elmhurst United Middle School, which Salgado once attended, in Oakland on June 8, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Oakland’s top school official, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, announced her support Wednesday night for a plan to dismantle the school district’s internal police department.

"I am recommending that we move forward to create a districtwide safety plan to ensure safe, healthy and positive school environments for students and adults without a school district police department," said Johnson-Trammell. "Together, we can reimagine how to keep our schools safe, healthy and welcoming."

Two Oakland Unified school board members have put forward a proposal that aims to do just that, while others who rejected similar moves in the past signaled they’re warming up to the idea.

Plans to dissolve the department have been floated before, but the momentum of the moment is undeniable. Around the state and country, pressure is mounting for schools to cut ties with police. In Minneapolis, they already have, while Portland and Denver districts are on track to make similar calls.

In Oakland, the school board is expected to vote on the George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department later this month.

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Activists, led by the group Black Organizing Project, have been pushing to get police out of Oakland schools for nearly a decade, since a black student named Raheim Brown was shot and killed by a school district police sergeant.

The Project's director, Jackie Byers, said she sees an opportunity in this moment “to redefine community safety in our schools, to reinvest in our schools, to reinvest in our students and to be a model for this entire country of what is possible.”

During Wednesday night's virtual school board meeting, and at a press conference held by activists beforehand, dozens of educators and community members voiced their support for the resolution, arguing that having police in schools does more harm than good.

“We’re overdue to transform the idea that in order to keep our schools safe we need to police our young people,” said Sagnicthe Salazar, director of restorative discipline at Elmhurst United Middle School. He added that schools should stop partnering with “a force that historically, and on the daily, inflicts fear and terror on our young people and their families.”

Many at the meeting echoed the sentiment that police presence creates a climate of fear in schools and leads to trauma; others referenced the school to prison pipeline and disproportionate arrests of students of color — 73% of district students arrested are black according to a 2019 platform document by the Black Organizing Project, while only roughly a quarter of the district’s students are black.

Mirroring national calls to defund police, supporters argued that OUSD should invest its money in supportive services like school social workers, psychologists and restorative justice practitioners — services that could better get at some of the root causes of behavioral issues while keeping students out of the criminal justice system. Many pointed to painful budget cuts the district faces to lend urgency to the case.

"We as adults who are managing the budget — we've got to get behind these students, we've got to fund education, not police," said OUSD school board member Roseann Torres, who introduced the resolution named in honor of George Floyd with board vice president Shanthi Gonzales.

Their proposal would eliminate the district’s internal police force and its 10 sworn police officers. Those armed officers cost OUSD about $2 million dollars a year, and the proposal calls for the savings to be reinvested in student support services.

The Oakland teachers’ union is backing the resolution and over 50 school administrators signed on to a letter supporting it. “Some will say that the OUSD Police Department is necessary because it is used,” it reads. “When school leaders are given only a hammer, they will treat every problem like a nail. Greater investments in school-based support staff will both reduce the need, and the desire, to utilize police as a response to disruption or disorder.”

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Wednesday night's meeting marked a turnaround. Only two months earlier, in March, the school board voted down a resolution to eliminate the police department and declined to reduce the number of sworn officers serving in schools.

At the time, school leaders did express interest in pursuing a plan for how the district could operate without a police force and recently signed a $60,744 contract with Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Project to develop recommendations.

School board member Gary Yee, who voted against moves to cut the force in March, said last night he’d gotten “hundreds of thousands” of emails and phone calls, and protesters had gathered in front of his house. He credited the outcry for shifting his thinking.

"I've come to realize how shortsighted I was," he said, "the blinders I had about focusing only on physical safety blocked out the importance of social-emotional and trauma-informed safety."

Only a couple members of the public raised concerns about doing away with school police Wednesday night, and their apprehensions echoed those voiced previously. Lee Thomas, president of United Administrators of Oakland Schools, said a survey showed disagreement among union ranks and concerns over ensuring safety.

"We just want to make sure we have an environment that, yes, is not going to create a school to prison pipeline, but at the same time makes sure that our teachers are going to be safe and our students are going to be safe and we are going to put our staff in the best situation possible when an emergency arises," Thomas said.

He also raised concerns about placing additional burdens on administrators as they contend with drastic changes to education wrought by the pandemic.

Another speaker who didn't give her name questioned whether the city’s police department would have the bandwidth to respond to the 1,000 or so calls the school’s police force responds to each semester. The proposed resolution allows for schools to call on the Oakland Police Department in emergencies.

What security in Oakland schools would look like if the police force is dissolved isn’t certain.  Today, there are around 60 unarmed school security officers managed by the district's police department and it’s not clear if they’d be fired or retrained if the plan is adopted in its current form. Board member Torres has talked about reimagining the role of security personnel as that of mentors and peacekeepers, in line with Black Organizing Project's plan.

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The proposal calls for the district to work with community stakeholders to come up with new strategies for ensuring student safety and well-being, and lay out a blueprint by Dec. 31 for how the district would move forward without a police force. Johnson-Trammell said, pending negotiations with labor unions, she intends to have a plan in hand by then.