Nearly six months after a momentous decision to abolish its school police department, the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education agreed at a meeting Wednesday night to endorse a safety plan that relies on “culture and climate ambassadors” instead of cops.
The George Floyd District Safety Plan provides new guidelines for how teachers and staff should respond to school incidents that do not involve calling school police, including situations where a mental health crisis is occurring or school employees need to report child abuse. It also provided details about the culture and climate unit that would replace school police employees and provided a timeline to continue the process to transform the school discipline process.
But advocates were left disappointed that Oakland Unified is not shutting its school police department fast enough. Jessica Black, a director with the Black Organizing Project, said members of the group were “frustrated, disappointed and angry” to learn that some school police employees will remain on the school district’s payroll at the start of the new year, changing a timeline outlined in the June plan, known as the George Floyd Resolution.
The delay in phasing out police could incur higher salary costs that would jeopardize plans to put more supportive staff on school grounds over the next few months.
“Any day beyond Dec. 31, 2020 is unacceptable and threatens to undermine the spirit of the George Floyd Resolution,” Black said at the meeting.
John Sasaki, director of communications for the Oakland Unified School District, said the district is “well on the way” to eliminating its police department, but there are still “parameters” that limit how fast it can move to eliminate school police employees. But he did not provide a timetable for when school police would leave Oakland schools.
“A police department, even one the relatively small size of Oakland School Police Department, cannot be shut down overnight,” Sasaki wrote in a statement emailed to The Imprint.
At a meeting in June, the board of education unanimously voted to disband the 60-member Oakland School Police Department after national protests over the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. The landmark effort was driven by years of advocacy by the Black Organizing Project, which has highlighted the district’s disproportionate suspension, expulsion and arrest of Black students.
From 2015 to 2019, Black students represented 67% of arrests by school police, even though they accounted for only 27% of the student population, according to district numbers.
“As a student who has experienced school police, I know for a fact that this does not make us feel safe – it makes us feel more like monsters,” said Josiah Lanzy, a Black student at Oakland Unified and a youth leader with the Black Organizing Project, at the school board meeting.
Over the course of the past five months, a group of 35 activists, community members and school officials – convened by both the school district and local organizers – met over Zoom meetings to hash out the first part of a plan to replace 10 sworn officers and the 50 safety and security officers.
Now the Oakland Police Department will respond to some emergency calls. But the proposal will train a corps of unarmed, newly named culture and climate ambassadors to deal with less serious incidents. Replacing safety and security officers, these staff will be trained in de-escalation, youth development and restorative justice practices to defuse potentially violent situations.
“We want to see them as peacekeepers, loving and caring adults who are leading from a relationship-based perspective,” Black told The Imprint last month.
The new safety plan also addresses the concerns of some educators that the absence of school police could lead to a spike in calls to 911 for mental health crises and child abuse reports. Now, teachers and administrators will receive training on how to respond to these issues without having to call the Oakland police, utilizing county mental health services and resources instead.
Roseann Torres, a school board member who co-authored the George Floyd Resolution in June, said she thought the process that brought together activists and educators is an important step in creating a sustainable solution. Many Oakland school principals did not support the plan to get rid of school police. The new policies established in the planning process over the past five months will ensure that “people aren’t just going to turn around and call 911 for Oakland’s city police,” she said.
“We want to change the culture across the board,” Torres said.
Participants were guided by an analysis of district data, which found that only 6% of incidents required Oakland school police responses in an average year. Of 2,200 police visits, 68% were either routine checks or responses to student behavior. An additional 26% did not always necessitate a school police response and could be performed by personnel trained in de-escalation techniques, according to the George Floyd District Safety Plan .
Districts across the country are reconsidering law enforcement presence on school campuses.. Days after the death of George Floyd, public schools canceled a contract for Minneapolis Police Department officers to serve as school resource officers. Shortly thereafter, cities including Portland, Denver, Seattle and others followed suit.
Across the Bay Area, school districts in San Francisco, West Contra Costa County, Fremont, San Jose and Sacramento have also pledged to reduce or remove police officers from school.
In Los Angeles, activists also led a campaign to defund the school police, but theUnified School District took a more cautious approach, slashing its school police department budget by $25 million, or 36% overall. A task force is now weighing next steps, amid pressure from activists calling for the school district to completely abolish its police department.
Oakland Unified’s decision to delay terminating Oakland School Police Department employees may complicate budget calculations. According to district figures presented at Wednesday’s meeting, the cost of salary and compensation for the more than 60 school police positions is $6.3 million for the 2020-2021 school year. Removing school police officers starting in 2021 would provide the district with an estimated $1 million to support its revised campus interventions. About $1.8 million would be left for other student supports as well as planning and implementation of the remaining parts of the safety plan.
The second phase of the school district's safety plan will start in January and involve students, families, teachers, school administrators and other community partners focused on how to create an anti-racist and less punitive school culture.