After Abolishing School Police, Oakland Wants to Reimagine Safety in Education

A mural painted on the ground of Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland is pictured during a June 3 "Sit Out the Curfew" protest over the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis on May 25 while in police custody.  (Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)

A day after a unanimous vote to eliminate the Oakland school district's internal police department and develop an alternative safety plan by the end of the year, advocates turned from celebrating back to business.

At a press conference Thursday, leaders with Black Organizing Project (BOP), which led the nearly decade-long fight to get cops out of the city's schools, looked to steer the momentum of the moment toward a wholesale reshaping of school culture. They called for supporters to ready for more pushback as the work of redesigning school safety gets underway.

"While we're very excited to win the removal of the police department from OUSD, we also are embracing this next level of struggle," said Jessica Black, an organizing director for BOP, who added that it will "require people to change their minds."

Specifically, she said, it'll require the school district to hand over some decision making power to community stakeholders.

"We now have to change our hearts and minds around who the experts are," she said.

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The newly approved George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department directs Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to launch "an inclusive, community-driven process" for developing a new district safety plan by Aug. 21.

The resolution explicitly calls for parents, students, teachers, administrators, the Black Organizing Project and others to be included in the process. Advocates say holding district leaders to that will require steady demands for transparency — something the district's often been criticized for lacking.

For guidance on how an alternative approach to school safety might work, BOP has looked to the work of organizers in Canada, who successfully ousted armed police from Toronto schools in 2017.

Speaking at Thursday's press conference, organizer Andrea Vasquez Jimenez of Latinx, Afro-Latin-America, Abya Yala Education Network, who helped lead the Toronto effort, warned against recreating a similar policing system through different means, such as contracts with law enforcement, technological surveillance or security personnel with police-like roles.

Vasquez Jimenez described the Toronto process as a community-guided redistribution of school resources that led to more support staff and programs for students, in addition to policy changes — like limiting the kinds of offenses deemed suspendable, and the hiring of community advocates into leadership positions within the district.

"Community wants to be there," she said. "What we need are educational spaces to open their arms and say, 'We need you community.'"

She cited data from the Toronto District School Board that show suspensions in the 2018 school year dropped 24% compared to the 2016 school year, the last year student resource officers were on campus. Expulsions dropped 53% over that same period.

The data show a modest decrease in the percentage of all suspensions and expulsions of Black students, from 36.2% to 33.0%. Black students make up about 11 % of district students.

In voting to lay off all 67 employees of the Oakland School Police Department, including its 10 sworn officers, the board agreed it could funnel those savings towards student support services like counselors and academic mentors. The board's decision also directs the district to put in place annual implicit bias and anti-racism training for all staff — and in a last-minute addition, for school board members themselves.

Wednesday's resolution draws in part on a 2019 Black Organizing Project plan for police-free schools, which calls for moving the safety program to the equity or behavioral health departments and investing more money in mental health and special education staff, plus restorative justice programs. The plan would replace school security officers with "peacekeepers" or "school climate specialists" trained in de-escalation and trauma-informed approaches.

The schools police department chief Jeff Godown has expressed support for the board's vote, and his input may help guide the alternative safety plan development. Earlier this year, Superintendent Johnson-Trammell tasked Godown with coming up with guidelines for how the district could function without officers in schools. Last month, the school board also hired Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Project to develop recommendations. That report, due in the fall, will likely also shape the safety plan.

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Activists with BOP want to seize on the momentum to think beyond safety in the traditional sense.

"We're proposing to have students learn social skills, to have students learn how to build relationships, to have teachers learn how to build relationships," said BOP organizer Black. "We're proposing to change the entire school culture and climate."

School leaders have echoed that sentiment.

"Police in schools are ultimately a symptom of a much larger issue," Johnson-Trammell said before the vote. "If we are really going to make progress, we have to transform the underlying conditions within the school system that have brought us to this place."

Advocates say they're ready for the work. "It’s gonna take a while to turn this thing around," said BOP director Jackie Byers. "We’re in for the long haul."

This article has been updated to clarify the number of armed personnel included in the Oakland School Police Department's total staff.