Ending a nine-year push by a community group to eliminate the Oakland Unified police department, the school board unanimously voted Wednesday to dismantle the 67-member unit by the end of this year.
The board also agreed that the savings could be used to hire more counselors and social workers and allow for the return of some restorative justice coordinators who were let go in 2019-20 to close a hole in its budget. The coordinators were part of a nationally recognized program that uses discussion to diffuse conflict among students. However, the specific staffing for an alternative safety plan will be determined with the help of a committee that will begin working by Aug. 21.
The board also voted to lay off all 67 members of the police department as of Dec. 31, including the chief, two sergeants, seven officers, three administrators, one dispatcher and 53 school security guards. The department budget is about $4 million, Chief Jeff Godown told EdSource on Thursday.
The action to adopt the “George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police” came amid massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country, including student-led protests in Oakland, denouncing the killing of George Floyd and demanding reforms and reduced funding for police. Support from district staff and community members to eliminate the district’s police force has increased as the protests intensified.
In recent weeks, since Floyd’s death, other school districts nationwide have canceled their contracts with city police departments to provide school resource officers to campuses. Jessica Black, organizing director for the Black Organizing Project community organization has been pushing for the elimination of the district’s police department since 2011. The group says that, based on their research, Oakland is the first large school district in the nation to dismantle its own internal police force.
“Today, we made history,” she said. “We have dismantled an entire police department…This is a first in this country to effectively do this.”
The Black Organizing Project, which will be part of the committee that develops the safety plan, envisions police and security officers being replaced with campus “peacekeepers” or “ambassadors” trained in conflict resolution and deescalation. But, the board did not decide on the new job descriptions or whether they could be filled by the 53 security guards who have served on district campuses.
Board president Jody London thanked everyone who advocated for the changes and acknowledged the services of the police and security officers. She and board member Shanthi Gonzales said their votes were not meant to be a criticism of the people in the district’s police department, but were part of a larger movement toward a more holistic way of dealing with student discipline and support.
“We value the work you’ve provided and the relationships you have with our children,” London said. “We will be looking at how to reconstitute and redevelop the work in a different way, but a way that will still be meaningful.”
However, Janelle Hampton, who represents the seven sworn police officers in the California School Employees Association union, demanded that they be included in talks about restructuring campus safety in the district, saying many school staff members rely on them. She reminded the board that their union contract extends through June 2022. Whether they continue to be paid under the contract is an issue that will be negotiated between the district and the union.
The district also needs to negotiate with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents the 53 security guards who are unsworn officers who do not carry guns and do not have authority to arrest or charge and the Oakland Administrators Union which represents the two police department sergeants.
Although the board narrowly rejected a proposal in March to scale back the number of district police officers in a 3-4 vote, all seven board members embraced the new resolution Wednesday, which requires Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell to launch a community committee to come up with a plan by Dec. 31 to ensure that campuses will remain safe without armed officers. Johnson-Trammell had already begun working on a new safety plan based on the board’s direction in March, but that did not include community input.
Instead, she had asked Police Chief Jeff Godown to come up with recommendations. And last month, the board approved a $60,744 contract with Georgetown Law’s Innovative Policing Project to report by Nov. 28 on how the district could come up with an alternative safety plan “that could be put in place if the board elected to eliminate” its district police force.
Godown said Thursday that he was 100% supportive of the vote and would work with the superintendent to come up with a plan by December to move forward without a police department.
— Oakland Education Association (@OaklandEA) June 25, 2020
The Oakland Education Association teachers’ union endorsed the plan to eliminate police and posted a tweet after the vote: “Now our work turns toward dismantling white supremacy and racism in our schools and classrooms. Let’s get to work.”
District principals were divided on whether to eliminate school police. A group of 45 principals and assistant principals sent a letter earlier this month in favor of the proposal, after 28 principals sent a letter last March against eliminating police. Those opposed said district police respond more quickly and with more empathy than city police to school incidents, which can include shootings, assaults or other crimes. But those who sent the more recent letter had the opposite perspective, saying “the time is way past now” to “defund police.” They urged the board to “reinvest in student- and community-centered safety measures.”
Several board members said they had heard from principals who were concerned about maintaining school safety and stressed the importance of including school administrators on the committee that will help draw up the new safety plan.
Board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge voted for eliminating the police but told EdSource before the meeting that she remained concerned about who would answer calls for help from schools. She said voting for the measure would enable her to actively participate in discussions about how to move forward. District officials have said city police would still be expected to step in to address some crimes, but many of the same activists pushing to eliminate district police are also calling on the city to defund its police force, which could leave fewer officers available to answer calls throughout the city and district.
The resolution originally called for implicit bias training for all employees, but Hinton Hodge proposed an amendment that would also require the board to undergo the same training, which was approved. She also suggested adding more specific language about improving instruction for students of color, but the rest of the board said those details could be worked out later or included in a separate equity policy.
The vote has attracted attention across the state and nation, with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond saying Wednesday morning that he would be watching it closely. Thurmond said districts that opt not to have police on campuses need to find alternatives to ensure safety, otherwise they may end up reinstating police.
State Superintendent @TonyThurmond: Again anyone that has research, data, trends, numbers, please send to email@example.com. This is a moment of urgency. There are many challenges we've experienced, but we're all in this together to support our six million students.
— CA Department of Education (@CADeptEd) June 24, 2020
Citing a lack of research on effective ways to keep campuses safe without police, he asked those who have studied this issue to contact his department so information and resources can be shared with other districts seeking such alternatives.
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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