Credit: Courtesy of Shamar Theus
Bryanna Jones, a member of the Black Organizing Project, speaks to the Oakland Unified school board in favor of limiting the police role on school campuses.

Three large school districts in California are rewriting the rules about how and when police should be involved on their campuses, complementing broader efforts to implement less punitive disciplinary practices.

Oakland Unified, San Francisco Unified and Pasadena Unified are revamping their policies to ensure that police are called as a last resort when disciplining students on campus. The policies also require that students be told they have a right to remain silent and to request a parent or other adult of their choosing to be present before police interrogate them. The policies require districts to keep data on referrals to law enforcement, citations, arrests and alternative disciplinary practices.

Pasadena Unified passed a memorandum of understanding with police in September 2013 that has served as a model for both San Francisco and Oakland. Statewide civil rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel, are hoping the approach by these three districts will encourage other districts to adopt similar policies. Local groups, such as the Black Organizing Project in Oakland, have organized parents and community members to push the proposals through.

“We need to build relationships with kids rather than build a case against them,” said James Harris, vice president of the Oakland Unified school board.

“My daughter is 11 years old,” said Karissa Lewis, a Black Organizing Project member. “The school has to ask permission for my daughter to go on a field trip, miss school or for a photograph. But the district has not found it necessary to ask my permission to have her questioned by the police? This is unacceptable.”

Bryanna Jones is a parent of an Oakland Unified student and her mother has a 9-year-old foster child who is in special education in the district. Jones got involved with the effort to restrict police on school sites after an incident involving the 9-year-old. The young girl began yelling insults and became difficult to control after being escorted off the school bus for refusing to sit properly. The police were called, and Jones’ mother was not able to respond fast enough so she called Jones.

“When I got to the school, my sister was surrounded by police, which further traumatized her,” Jones said. “The police were pretty aggressive. It was shocking.”

Oakland Unified, which has its own police force, passed its board policy on May 28 and is currently negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the city police, who also work on some school campuses. San Francisco Unified enacted its memorandum in January. Of the three districts, Pasadena’s policy has been in place the longest, and officials have been assessing its impact.

Pasadena police have been called to school sites about a third fewer times this year than in previous years, said Eric Sahakian, director of Child Welfare, Attendance and Safety for the district.

Police respond only when mandatory under the law, such as a student committing an assault with a weapon or selling drugs, he said. Even when police are called, they act collaboratively with school administrators, and administrators are expected to spearhead the effort, Sahakian said.

It’s a change in the thinking and approach taken by both police and administrators, he said, adding that the new policy has worked smoothly during its first year of implementation.

Sarah Rudchenko, a principal at Wilson Middle School in East Pasadena, said the policy has meant that “we are making a more conscious effort to make sure law enforcement is not involved when they don’t have to be.”

In middle school, she said, students are still learning appropriate behavior, particularly regarding sexual harassment.

“They don’t necessarily know the line between what is appropriate and what isn’t,” Rudchenko said.

Rudchenko said her first response as a principal and as a parent if a police officer wanted to interrogate a student would be to call the parents.

“However, the new policy does make me more aware,” she said. “I won’t make any judgments. I’ll call the parent no matter what.” The one exception is a parent who is being accused of child abuse, she said. All three districts include that exception in their policies.

Oakland school board director Roseann Torres, a former prosecutor and currently a criminal defense attorney, said administrators are better equipped than police to handle most disciplinary issues.

Police officers are “trained to find suspects who have committed a crime,” she said. “They are trained to look for bad people.”

School districts, on the other hand, should be “protecting our most prized possession, our youth,” she said. “Interrogation is stressful for adults. It’s even worse for a teenager who is terrified. Why wouldn’t you want the parent to know?”

James Harris, vice president of the Oakland school board, said he still is able to remember being an 18-year-old kid who got in trouble. “I still remember the panic that I felt. The more times the police go over the story, the more afraid you get, and the more you want it to be over,” sometimes leading to false confessions, he said.

“We need to build relationships with kids rather than build a case against them,” Harris said.

Torres said that she has gotten pushback from administrators, some of whom are confused about the policy. One principal thought her school wouldn’t be able to use a police patrol it had just obtained to watch over students as they leave campus in the afternoon. Nothing in the policy would prevent that patrol, Torres said.

When implemented in the next school year, the policy is likely to upset some administrators who are used to picking up the phone and calling the police whenever there is a problem, Torres said. “There are always people upset when you change the status quo, but that’s OK because I don’t want the status quo.”

The new policy requires the district to develop interventions for schools that have the highest arrest rates for African-American students. The district is to report to the board on those interventions two times a year.

Torres said interventions do not have to cost a lot of money. When her daughter, now a high school sophomore, was attending Montera Middle School in Oakland, she was among a group of students chosen to participate in conflict resolution and restorative justice training at UC Berkeley. She received the one-day training in both 7th and 8th grades. Torres said she regularly got calls from her daughter’s teachers saying how effective she had been in defusing conflicts that arose in the classroom.

“Every classroom could have a boy or girl with that training,” she said. “We’ve got to be creative.”

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