Credit: Brooke Anderson/Courtesy of the Black Organizing Project
Advocates for eliminating the Oakland Unified police force rally outside the home of board president Jody London on June 5, 2020.
This story was updated at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday to include a statement from the Oakland Unified superintendent.

Amid calls to defund municipal police in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, two Oakland Unified school board members are pushing to eliminate the district’s police force. 

This is an acceleration of a demand that dates back nine years, when activists began calling on the district to dissolve its police department after a black student was shot and killed by a district police sergeant.

The proposal by board members Roseann Torres and Shanthi Gonzales says the district would call on Oakland City Police in emergencies. It has the support of the teachers’ union. It’s unclear if the resolution to be introduced Wednesday will get majority support. The board may hold a special meeting next week to vote on it, or could vote on it June 24, Gonzales told EdSource.

The West Contra Costa School Board on Wednesday also is expected to hear a proposal from the teachers’ union to end contracts with area police departments, although it is not an agenda item. Unlike Oakland Unified, West Contra Costa does not staff its own police force.

“There’s a lot of diversity of opinion on this issue,” said Gonzales, adding that as Oakland Unified faces budget cuts, she is weighing the value of police compared to the value of other student services such as counselors, psychologists and social workers.

“There certainly have been times when it has been helpful to have a police force,” she said. “But we have repeatedly had to make cuts to student services… Our students really need those kinds of supports. It’s not about a lack of value for the police, but it’s a tradeoff, and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t in good conscience make cuts to support staff to fund police.”

Torres said she is optimistic that the proposal will receive a majority of four or five votes out of the seven board members, but she expects there could be amendments. 

“The goal is to figure out the ‘how’ because we need a collaboration with the City Council about how OPD (Oakland Police Department) will be responsive to needs that formerly the 10 officers of OUSD handled at schools or around schools,” she said. “We also know we can put more focus on safety with advance action around more counselors, restorative justice training of staff and other resources students need.”

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell announced Wednesday morning that she plans to discuss her vision of the district’s police department at the meeting.

“Together, we can reimagine how to keep our schools safe, healthy and welcoming,” she said in a statement. “Together, we can find a new way. A way that builds on OUSD’s strong foundation of community schools, restorative justice, and social emotional learning.”

The district spends about $6.5 million a year on its police department, which includes seven officers, two sergeants and a police chief, who are all sworn police personnel, and about 60 non-sworn campus security guards. The proposal calls for eliminating the 10 sworn police positions, which cost the district about $2 million a year Torres said she anticipates the non-sworn campus security positions would be changed to “peace and culture keepers” and that they could reapply for these new positions after they are created.

Non-sworn officers do not carry a gun, do not have police training and do not have the authority to arrest and charge students.

The resolution directs Johnson-Trammell to come up with a process by July 17 that would result in a plan by Dec. 31 for how the district would function without a police force. 

The final plan would include input from parents, students and district staff. It would also reflect reaction from community organizations such as the Black Organizing Project, an Oakland-based black community organization focused on racial, economic and social justice including the elimination of Oakland Unified’s police force. 

During a board Budget and Finance Committee meeting last week, board member Aimee Eng expressed support for “transitioning” to a different system in 2020-21. She told EdSource on Tuesday that overall, she is supportive of the resolution.

She called it “an opportune time” for the district to “re-envision and rethink how we are addressing and supporting the overall social emotional, behavioral and safety needs of our students at schools when we reopen,” she said. “This includes reviewing, revisiting and at times moving away from our current resources and investments — such as eliminating school police — in order to reallocate and reinvest resources that would transform our system from crisis response to increased prevention and earlier intervention.”

At the committee meeting, board member James Harris said he wanted to have a new safety plan in place before eliminating police. But Torres said she wrote the resolution with Harris’ input and is hopeful of his support. EdSource was unable to reach Harris, or board members Gary Yee and Jumoke Hinton Hodge for comment.

Aaron Latham, a spokesman for the California School Employees Association union that represents the sworn officers who are not managers, said the Oakland Police Chief said earlier this year that the department may have trouble responding to district calls due to its heavy workload. He said the officers “serve their schools and community with integrity and sensitivity that should be modeled by other departments” by answering calls from district administrators, students, board members and students’ families.

He said those who criticize district police “are using the pain and strife of the current situation to serve their long-standing agenda of targeting a small group of police officers who are exemplary public servants,” who “do not deserve to be painted with the broad brush that all police are bad police.”

The question of whether Oakland Unified should eliminate its police department has come up regularly at board meetings.

In March, board president Jody London and board members Harris, Yee and Hinton Hodge voted against a proposal by Torres to eliminate three police positions during budget cuts. Instead, the board at that time directed Johnson-Trammell to present a plan by September showing how the district could safely operate without its in-house police force. According to the new resolution, the completion of the safety plan would be pushed back to Dec. 31.

And last month, the board approved a $60,744 contract with Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Project to prepare a report by Nov. 28, including recommendations about how the role of district police could be modified or enhanced. 

London said she wants to stick with the current plan for Johnson-Trammell to present a plan to the board in September and to allow the Georgetown group to complete its report, which will include recommendations for developing an alternative safety plan “that could be put in place if the board elected to eliminate all non-school site staff sworn officers of the Oakland Schools Police Department.” 

Johnson-Trammell has previously committed to completing the safety report by September as requested by the board.

The movement to eliminate district police gained momentum last October after some members of the police force pushed back parents, teachers and community members with batons and arrested six of them as they approached sitting school board members. The citizens were protesting against school closures. Nine parents and staff members subsequently filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming they were injured in the melee, including one parent who underwent surgery on her knee. That lawsuit is ongoing.

The district garnered national attention in 2017 for its restorative justice practices, which provide alternatives to suspensions and expulsions by requiring students who break rules to make amends for the damage their behavior may have caused. 

But by 2019, the district lost ground as an innovator in student discipline when budget woes led to the cutting of 33 restorative justice coordinators between 2017 and 2019. During the same period, the district cut only three police officers, Torres and Gonzalez said in their resolution.

Torres and Gonzales are also asking the board to direct Johnson-Trammell to redirect $2 million from the police department to school-based social workers, psychologists, restorative justice leaders or other mental or behavioral health professionals to meet students’ needs. 

They pointed to other school districts that have terminated contracts with city police departments, such as Minneapolis, Denver and Portland, “as a result of the persistent deaths of innocent black citizens in the United States at the hands of police officers.”

The resolution notes that most students enrolled in Oakland schools are students of color. Exposing them to police contact in school “can lead to higher chances of being criminalized…The perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline is incompatible with our goal of creating safe, healthy and equitable schools for all district students.”

Jasmine Williams, spokeswoman for the Black Organizing Project, said she doesn’t believe it’s necessary for an outside organization to come up with a plan because her organization has already created its “People’s Plan for Police-Free Schools,” which outlines a vision for restructuring how security officers could work in different departments with a “restorative model.”

That plan calls for retraining campus security guards as “peacekeepers” who would work in the district’s Office of Equity or Behavioral Health Department. Staff in both areas work with the district’s restorative justice program. Her organization joined with others during the past week to protest in front of some board members’ homes to advocate for eliminating district police. 

“We do think, along with our organizing work behind the scenes, we will definitely apply the pressure for them to move quickly,” Williams said.

The 2,700-member Oakland Education Association teachers’ union also supports the elimination of the district police force, said union president Keith Brown.

“We call on the superintendent and board to provide courageous leadership in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and we urge them to reject the legacy of anti-blackness that is inherent in school policing and the school-to-prison pipeline,” Brown said in a statement. “We must eliminate school police in order to focus the full resources of our schools on the student services and supports that truly make our schools places of learning, community and safety. Of the 18 school districts in Alameda County, OUSD is the only one paying for its own internal school police department.”

The resolution incorporates many of the components of the Black Organizing Project plan, which the teacher’s union also supports. Both would bar any future contracts with law enforcement and both call for hiring more school mental and behavioral health and special education staff.

However, the Black Organizing Project plan also calls for establishing a community oversight committee “to review and redress all student and family complaints regarding interactions with law enforcement or school security personnel” and to halt school closures. Those two elements are not included in the proposed board resolution. 

In nearby West Contra Costa Unified, the teachers’ union — The United Teachers of Richmond — is also calling on the district to get rid of its police officers. West Contra Costa Unified contracts with local cities’ police departments to provide “school resource officers” — or campus police — at all six of the district’s traditional high schools as well as Greenwood Academy and Helms and DeJean middle schools. 

Though efforts started years ago to defund police at West Contra Costa Unified, the United Teachers of Richmond felt obligated to act now as anger towards police brutality and institutionalized racism are rising, according to a statement from the union Tuesday.

“We must grapple with the fact that our schools, our practices, policies and even our own union, are shaped by inequities, bias and institutional racism,” said a statement from the union leadership. “We are grieving and we are outraged. Together, we must continue the call for justice and to hold powerful people, organizations and each other accountable.”

As the district finalizes its budget for the 2020-2021 school year, the union proposes that the $1.5 million earmarked for police contracts instead be spent on counselors for African American students and resources to boost African American student achievement.

“West Contra Costa Unified School District must join a growing number of school districts across California that have eliminated, reduced, or are considering eliminating or reducing police presence in schools,” the union added, referring to Los Angeles, Oakland, Coachella Valley, Sacramento and Piedmont.

The district has reduced its police contracts and the number of school resource officers over the past three years, district spokesman Marcus Walton said. In 2017, the district unanimously passed a “positive school climate policy that prioritized restorative justice practices over traditional discipline, and called for data to be collected on whether it could reduce the number of school resource officers across the district. 

In addition to defunding school resource officers, the union is also calling on the district to provide training for teachers over the summer around restorative justice practices and anti-racism, create “race and equity” teams at every school that will look at data in order to create anti-racist schools, offer more ethnic studies courses and provide space for black teachers to share their input, concerns and needs with district officials.

The United Teachers of Richmond is calling on the community to attend the virtual school board meeting scheduled for Wednesday to speak out for these changes during the public comment portion of the meeting. At that meeting, the school board will also vote on a resolution “condemning police violence and brutality against people of color.”

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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