Over Zoom, officials and activists negotiate a plan
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Desiree McSwain-Mims got pegged a troublemaker in second grade. In eighth grade she found herself sitting in handcuffs in the back of a police car. By ninth grade, she was expelled for fighting.
It was a path, she said, that too many students of color travel. Now 27 and the mother of two young children approaching school age, McSwain-Mims is part of an unusual collaboration between grassroots organizers and school officials in Oakland, California, to end the longstanding practice of turning Black and Latino students into suspects.
In June, the Oakland Unified School District voted to disband its police force that had patrolled 83 district-run schools with roughly 36,000 students. And on Wednesday, board members will consider the “George Floyd District Safety Plan,” and its alternative responses to campus incidents.
Nationwide, several school districts are wrestling with what safety and discipline will look like after removing police and security guards from campuses and replacing punitive policies with de-escalation tactics and restorative justice practices. These transformative ideas — being crafted in unusual online Zoom laboratories as many schools remain shuttered — may mean that students accustomed to police, armed guards and harsh policies will encounter a very different environment when they finally return to their campuses.
In Oakland, activists with the Black Organizing Project first called for police-free schools a decade ago, but significant reform efforts only succeeded this past summer, following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police.
Now the Oakland district and local activists are working together on a complete overhaul of campus safety that does not criminalize youth — an achievement McSwain-Mims, a Black Organizing Project communications coordinator, described as once-unimaginable.
“I personally was affected by ‘school pushout’ and the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said in a recent Zoom meeting. “I still can’t believe that we accomplished this.”
On Wednesday, Oakland school board members are expected to vote on the first phase of the George Floyd safety plan, which lays out new guidelines for how teachers and staff should handle incidents that do not involve calling police.
With the pandemic reaching new levels of devastation this month, the plan will go into effect when COVID-19-shuttered schools reopen next year.
District officials and community organizers say it will dismantle a culture that leads to Black and Latino students being disproportionately suspended, expelled and referred to police.
The work in Oakland began after school board members voted unanimously in June to abolish the district’s police department — one of just a few large school districts in the country with its own force. Fifty-seven unarmed school security officers were issued pink slips, and the board redirected $2.5 million previously used to fund eight officers and a chief to the new safety vision.
The Black Organizing Project demanded to be a part of crafting that new vision, and the district agreed. Calling themselves “co-convenors,” 35 Oakland school officials and activists have met weekly over Zoom since July.
It has not been an easy collaboration. Ground rules had to be established, and the two groups have had to work toward transparency and trust. Despite some tense conversations, school officials and organizers say their work is producing hopeful results.
“I don’t think there’s a playbook for making sure the community is part of the transformation and that it is not just done by the school,” said district spokesman Curtiss Sarikey, who is also part of the safety working group.
Sarikey said the district expects it will take two to three years to fully develop and implement the new safety plan. “This is new territory across the board, and I’m excited about that.”
If the effort succeeds, it will disrupt a decades-long history rooted in racism and discrimination. The Oakland Unified School District established its police force in the 1950s in response to white residents’ fears of changing Bay Area demographics amid the migration of Black Americans from Jim Crow southern states. Black children were castigated as “a social problem at best and a criminal problem at worst,” according to research by Donna Murch, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University.
Since then, district figures show that Black students accounted for 67% of arrests by the school district’s police unit from 2015 to 2019, although they comprised only 27% of the student population.
In a 2018 video montage of student stories compiled by the Black Organizing Project, young people describe past experiences with Oakland school police and resource officers that they say left them traumatized. An eighth grade girl recalls being strapped to a gurney in front of the school and transported by ambulance to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, after a teacher accused her of disrupting a class. She was 11 years old at the time. A 14-year-old boy — who got into a fight after another student dumped a tray of food on him — describes being suspended and saddled with an assault charge after a tussle with a security officer who grabbed him from behind.
In these and other examples, the students say their experiences left them feeling intimidated, targeted and unheard.
“If they would have let me get my story out there then maybe the police wouldn’t have been involved and maybe on my record it wouldn’t say I was arrested,’’ the 14-year-old boy said.
Among the first tasks of the working group re-envisioning Oakland school safety was to examine the current volume and types of calls to understand when police intervention was truly necessary.
The district’s police force has responded to about 2,000 calls a year, but according to data from 2016 and 2017, 68% of those were routine checks and patrols, or responses to student behavior that district officials now say did not need a police response. Roughly one quarter were identified as incidents that could have warranted a police presence, such as “high-level” fights or mental health disturbances. Only a small portion — 6% — represented emergency situations, including assault with a deadly weapon, rape, gunshots or vehicle collisions.
Top calls in 2019 for service fell into five categories. Disturbing the peace calls were the most prevalent, less than half of which involved minors. Battery accusations came next, followed by 911 hang-ups, mental health-related calls and, triggered property alarms.
School officials and community organizers say these numbers are important because they indicate that most incidents can be handled with skilled de-escalation tactics, rather than putting students in early contact with police, which studies show increases a young person’s chances for ending up in the adult criminal justice system.
Under the first phase of the alternate safety plan Oakland school board members will vote on this week, police can be called to campus only under narrow circumstances, Sarikey said. Such incidents include bomb threats, major violent crimes, emergency evacuations, medical emergencies or any situation that puts lives at risk.
The revised plan, which relies heavily on a proposal the Black Organizing Project published last year, also calls for greater reliance on non-law enforcement county agencies to respond without police involvement to mental health crises and suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. Police would still be notified if the cases required criminal investigation.
The plan also outlines new job descriptions and training for some of the 57 unarmed security officers laid off in June, many of whom will be rehired into newly reimagined roles. Local organizers say some school security officers had a punitive mentality that doesn’t match the new vision for safety, but many come from the same communities as students and have established relationships with them.
The plan is to recast them as “culture and climate ambassadors” who, if trained properly in de-escalation skills, could step into tense situations and prevent higher levels of intervention.
“We want to see them as peacekeepers,” said Jessica Black, a director with the Black Organizing Project, “loving and caring adults who are leading from a relationship-based perspective.”
As Oakland Prepares, A Nation Watches
The Advancement Project, a national organization that supports community-level social justice efforts, is tracking 40 school districts across the country that have passed resolutions to eliminate school safety officers; introduced resolutions to do so, or have active campaigns underway. They are in various stages of developing alternate safety plans but have some similarities: In general, their school board resolutions called for redirecting money spent on policing toward mental health services, social workers, and implicit bias and restorative justice training.
Students and social justice advocates have pushed for police-free schools for decades, but it was Floyd’s brutal killing in May, videotaped for the world to watch in horror, that ignited demonstrations and invigorated the call for police-free schools, cries echoed in some cities by teachers as well.
Within days of Floyd’s death, the Minneapolis school board unanimously approved a resolution to sever ties with local police who had provided security for the district since the 1960s.
Portland and Denver public school officials soon followed, voting to eliminate police presence on their campuses. After that, Seattle, Washington; Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Rochester, New York approved similar resolutions. In the greater San Francisco Bay area, public school officials in San Francisco, West Contra Costa County, Fremont, San Jose and Sacramento also voted to cut ties with police officers and reduce or remove security personnel.
In Sacramento, a task force looking into how to reallocate the $600,000 spent annually on its police contract includes students, staff and labor groups who have met weekly since September. The advisory committee is also examining the effect systemic racism has on every level of its education system, district officials said. Like Oakland, the Sacramento task force is supposed to have a new safety plan in place by this month, spokeswoman Tara Gallegos said.
All told, the shift appeared to have happened quickly after the summer’s international protests over the police killings of Black people. But the removal of police from campuses may turn out to be the easy part, activists and school officials say. The harder work will be transforming school cultures that have allowed systemic racism and implicit bias to shape how teachers and staff view and discipline students of color. Without such introspection, school personnel may still resort to calling in local police for non-emergencies, a prospect some fear could erode progress.
“This will be an ongoing process,” Gallegos said. “Systemic racism can’t be dismantled in a matter of a few months. This is a lifetime commitment.”
In Oakland, school officials and community organizers plan to tackle the matter of school culture in the second phase of their work, which will begin immediately after the school board’s Wednesday vote and include students, parents and teachers. Those discussions will involve future efforts including anti-racism training for staff and the hiring of social workers, case managers and psychologists for students.
National organizers say, if successful, Oakland’s uncommon partnership between school officials and activists will make the district unique.
“Because the police-free school victories are new, districts across the country are moving in many different directions, and communities and youth organizations are fighting to ensure policing doesn’t get replicated by other forms of criminalization,” said Maria Fernandez, an advocate with the Advancement Project. “Oakland Unified has the opportunity to do it right.”
In some parts of the country where districts have severed police ties, conflicts have already arisen about who will take the place of cops on campus.
The Minneapolis Public Schools district — the first in the nation to abolish campus police in June — quickly came under fire after posting job candidate ads for its new safety team, seeking people with criminal justice backgrounds. More than half of the finalists interviewed were former police officers, security guards and correctional officers, sparking fears that the district would simply recreate the same environment it sought to eliminate. Local news reports described activists’ frustration that the district made these moves without seeking community input.
In Los Angeles, where activists were also calling for the school district to disband its police department, officials took a more cautious approach. In June, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted to cut its police department’s budget by $25 million, or 36%, rather than eliminate it altogether, and created a task force to consider future changes.
Healing Herself ‘And Future Generations’
McSwain-Mims, who works as a communications coordinator for the Black Organizing Project, said it’s vital that students and parents play a role in what happens next because they are the ones who have suffered from being pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system.
As a student in the San Leandro Unified School District’s gifted and talented program, she freely admits that she talked a lot, and she questioned authority. She never committed any crimes, but “behavior infractions” — large and small, warranted and not — piled one on top of the other, eventually pushing her off the graduation path.
Those experiences left McSwain-Mims feeling that the school didn’t care about her or her potential.
“You’re not hearing me, you’re not seeing me, I’m not valued in this class,” she said in an interview with The Imprint, describing how she felt growing up. “No matter what I say, you’re going to kick me out.”
After she was expelled from high school, McSwain-Mims tried to apply to another school district, but that petition was denied. So instead, she studied independently for her high school equivalency exam and eventually went on to study retail interior design in college.
Now a mother of two children ages 3 and 1, she said it feels “almost divine” that she is part of a movement to transform the school discipline system by the time they are ready for school.
“Maybe I can heal myself and future generations through engaging in this work,” she said.
Healing in the greater Oakland area is desperately needed. The Black Organizing Project launched the police-free schools fight in 2011 after two district police officers shot and killed 20-year-old Raheim Brown on school property. Each year, the group achieved small victories such as persuading the district to initiate restorative justice practices. But each year, they failed to convince the school to oust the police. Three months before Floyd’s killing, they’d tried again and were voted down.
These days, Oakland activists who have pushed for police-free schools for a decade say they have never felt more hopeful, even though they know deeper systemic challenges lie ahead.
“This is huge,” McSwain-Mims recently told supporters on a Zoom call. “And I want us to savor this moment. This was hard. This was a lot of work. But while we sit in this moment and continue to make history, we also recognize that we are still up against systems that still exist. There’s no time to rest.”