Black Organizing Project members protesting at a school board meeting in March. Photo: Courtesy Black Organizing Project

Three months ago, during a special meeting of the Oakland Unified School District board of directors on March 4, dozens of parents, students, teachers and community members spoke out against millions in proposed budget cuts. One refrain was repeated over and over: If you must make cuts, don’t slash classroom spending. Get rid of the police, first.

“You have an opportunity to make a decision and do something radical,” Jessica Black, a district parent, told the board at the time, referring to the idea of cutting ties with the school district’s police force. Black is also a member of the Black Organizing Project, a group working towards racial justice in schools.

“The money that is being paid to the police should go back to the schools to create better lunches, bring back after school programs, sports and mediation staff,” a fourth grader at Manzanita Community School named Josiah told the school board. “Stand with BOP, eliminate school police tonight.”

Though a motion to cut three police officers failed in a four-to-three vote during that March meeting, activists have continued to pressure district leaders to remove police from schools.

It’s an effort that’s been ongoing in Oakland for years.

Since 2011, the Black Organizing Project has been campaigning to eliminate police from OUSD, the only district in Alameda County with its own police force. The district spends more than $6 million each year employing school police and security officers.

“I represent the 36,000 students of OUSD. We all share the same feeling about police. The same thoughts. The same trauma. Police do not equal safety for us.” — Denilson Garibo

Now, OUSD is facing another round of budget cuts that could reach into the tens of millions. And it’s happening at precisely the same moment the national movement against police violence, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, has focused attention on policing in schools.

In the days after Floyd’s death, the University of Minnesota severed ties with the Minneapolis Police Department, which was contracted to patrol the campus. Soon after, the Minneapolis Public Schools district followed suit and ended its contract with the same police department. Activists across the country are calling on other local school districts to do the same.

Organizers working to end school policing in Oakland think this could be a turning point. And with the coronavirus pandemic upending public education, they say it’s a perfect opportunity to radically change how schools function.

“For years we’ve been doing this work and there’s grassroots organizations across the country dedicated to a moment like this,” said Jasmine Williams, a development and communications manager with the Black Organizing Project. “The world is really ready to fight on behalf of black youth and families.”

At a youth protest drawing 15,000 people in Oakland on Monday, students called for OUSD’s board of directors to rid their schools of police.

The Black Organizing Project began campaigning to remove police officers from school campuses in 2011, after an Oakland school officer shot and killed 20-year-old Raheim Brown, who was sitting in a car near Skyline High School while a school dance was underway. The officer, Barhin Bhatt, claimed that Brown attacked his partner with a screwdriver and that there was a gun in the car. But Bhatt’s partner, Jonathan Bellusa, later cast doubts about the official version of events and OUSD’s handling of the investigation. The district eventually paid $995,000 to settle two wrongful death lawsuits brought against OUSD over the police killing.

In the years since, BOP members have encouraged Oakland Unified to move away from policies that rely on punishment and policing, which can often lead to students becoming involved in the juvenile justice system — a process sometimes referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In 2012, BOP pushed the school board to establish a formal process for submitting complaints about school police officers. In 2015, they joined other community organizers to pressure district leaders to remove “willful defiance” as a reason for suspensions and expulsions after it was shown that Black students were disproportionately punished under the rule.

Oakland Unified is now considered a model for its implementation of restorative justice practices that focus on accountability instead of punishment.

Yet while overall suspension numbers have steadily decreased in Oakland, Black students are still suspended at higher rates than other racial groups. During the 2018-2019 school year, 57% of students suspended were Black, though they only comprised 24% of the student body.

Last year, BOP released its plan outlining how Oakland schools can eliminate police by 2020, by emphasizing peace-keeping instead of security, and investing in mental health and special education services.

With the district considering up to $35 million in cuts this month, District 5 Director Roseann Torres, an attorney, has been working with the Black Organizing Project to put de-funding the police back on the school district’s agenda.

Torres favors eliminating the entire school police force, which includes a chief, two sergeants, seven sworn police officers and 57 school security officers who patrol on and around campuses. In the plan proposed by BOP, the school security officers, who do not carry weapons, would be re-trained in restorative justice practices, a form of non-punitive conflict resolution.

Under the proposed plan, the district could still rely on the Oakland Police Department in emergencies, while also creating a less intimidating environment for students without the constant presence of police in school, Torres said. Money currently allocated to police could then be re-invested in other student support programs, like restorative justice programs or school counselors.

“Why do we have to spend another $6 million that we’re taking out of the mouths of children for resources? We can cry all day about not having a better budget, but how do we spend our budget?” Torres said.

It was Torres who made a motion to have the OUSD police budget cut in March. That meeting grew contentious, with board members being heckled by supporters in the audience. The two student directors, Denilson Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl, left the meeting in protest, feeling that they weren’t being heard.

“In that moment I was just angry, disappointed and just sad,” Garibo said. “I represent the 36,000 students of OUSD. We all share the same feeling about police. The same thoughts. The same trauma. Police do not equal safety for us.”

“I don’t know why it has to be a conversation about why our life matters and why we don’t need to be policed at such a young age at school,” Smith-Dahl told The Oaklandside. “Children of Oakland don’t deserve to have their bodies policed at school, which is a learning environment.”

“The world is really ready to fight on behalf of black youth and families.” — Jasmine Williams

At the March meeting, school board director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge raised questions about whether OPD officers are equipped to handle calls regarding students, but otherwise expressed her opposition to getting rid of school police.

“I don’t believe in abolition of [school] police officers for a number of reasons,” Hinton-Hodge said at the meeting. “I don’t want OPD, untrained, not thinking about young people first, to be the first people I pick up the phone to call [in an emergency].”

Torres’ amendment to cut police funding was rejected by a majority of the board, but some district leaders still seem amenable to the idea. When directors voted to cut $20 million in other areas, they also directed the superintendent to create a safety plan for police-free schools. The plan will be presented in the fall.

School board president Jody London, who voted no in March, told Oaklandside this week that she is awaiting the safety report before making a decision.

“I hear the urgency from our community and understand their frustration, particularly in light of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others,” London told The Oaklandside. “I also have heard from a number of our leaders at school sites about why they support an internal safety program and staff who are trained in de-escalation and restorative practices and respond quickly to safety concerns on campuses. I support the direction we provided to the Superintendent in March, which allows us to have a plan in place to ensure safety.”

Directors Gary Yee, Hinton-Hodge and James Harris, who also voted against the measure, did not respond to The Oaklandside’s requests for comment. Directors Torres, Shanthi Gonzales and Aimee Eng supported the amendment.

Williams said the Black Organizing Project and its supporters will continue emailing and calling district leaders and speaking out at board meetings during the June budget discussions for the 2020-2021 school year. They’re hoping that momentum, buoyed by the national mood, is on their side.

“It’s inhumane and unfortunate that lives have to be lost, students have to be pushed out of school and their quality of life impacted for people to understand this impacts real people,” said Williams.

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Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 OUSD teachers strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education...