The first day of school this year was a little different for public school students in Oakland — and not just because they’ve spent the last year in hybrid learning.
On Aug. 9, students returned to police-free campuses.
The story of Oakland’s efforts to eliminate school policing highlights four important lessons for California and the nation about what it truly takes to stop the criminalization of young people and their families.
1: It takes an understanding that school policing harms students of color and Black students in particular. In the last four years alone, Black students in Oakland public schools accounted for 76% of arrests by school police, but just 26% of all students. Like so many other districts across the country, Oakland has spent millions of dollars on school police, surveillance and other activities that have derailed too many Black lives.
As documented in a new report from the ACLU of Southern California, police have become a “dominant fixture” in schools across California. This has happened despite recent research showing that policing, surveillance and military weapons in our communities do not create true safety; community engagement, restorative justice and trauma-informed practices do. In removing police from Oakland Unified School District campuses, Oakland is changing the narrative around how to build authentic student safety and building a model that can be referenced in multiple school districts across the nation.
2: It takes organizing and political will. In June 2020, the Oakland School Board voted unanimously to pass the George Floyd Resolution to eliminate the district’s police department — one of the first school districts in the nation to do so. The resolution was the result of many years of organizing against a system that unfairly targets Black and brown youth. It all started in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Raheim Brown by an Oakland school police officer in 2011, as community members mobilized to transform local systems that harm Black youth and families.
The focus of the organizing work was the decriminalization of Black youth and the demilitarization of our communities as police violence against young people continued to plague the city. Now, the George Floyd resolution has cleared the way for Oakland’s schools to shift resources away from policing and toward supportive services that will create true school safety for all students.
3: It takes a genuine commitment to changing school culture. Oakland schools aren’t simply eliminating school police; they also are taking active steps to completely shift school culture, climate and discipline toward the goal of transforming our schools into sanctuaries where all students are free from racism, free from implicit bias, free from fear and free from physical danger.
For example, 12 new culture and climate ambassadors will support students and respond to situations that were previously handled by police, working with an expanded team of onsite therapists, social workers and other trusted adults to assess students’ mental health needs and reach out to parents as appropriate. A new, districtwide coordinator of safety will oversee safety planning and serve as a liaison to the Oakland Police Department. Just as critically, organizers from various community-based organizations led by the Black Organizing Project will work with teachers, parents and students to develop a comprehensive set of new policies that provide police-free alternatives for teachers and school administrators to respond to disciplinary issues, fights and non-life threatening incidents.
4: It takes follow-through and a communitywide commitment to change. As Oakland Unified continues the process of hiring for these new positions and working to implement the transformation called for in the George Floyd Resolution, the community understands that we all have a part to play in ensuring that this work succeeds.
Teachers and administrators are making a commitment not to call police or Immigration and Customs Enforcement on students and instead work with school and district staff to support them to find true safety and fulfillment. Parents are working with teachers, school staff and community organizers to hold the district accountable to the resolution. And students must have the support and guidance they need so they can take advantage of newly available resources to deescalate stressful situations, find mental health support for themselves or a peer, and keep working for additional changes that support their ability to thrive.
Our experience in Oakland shows a powerful path to creating a caring culture in our schools — and throughout the community — that upholds the dignity and possibility of every child. That means reinforcing and upholding the power of restorative discipline that prioritizes meaningful accountability over punishment. It means understanding and acknowledging how systemic inequities in our schools and beyond have contributed to immense harm for Black and brown youth. And it means listening to young people and their families about how racist policing affects them and about the changes they want to see, and implementing those changes.
We’re hoping other districts across California and nationwide will join us in showing how removing police from our schools and working through the impact on Black and brown students, in particular, can deliver sanctuary for us all.
Jasmine Williams is communications director with the Black Organizing Project, a grassroots community organization in Oakland.
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