At a "Black and Brown Solidarity March" at Mosswood Park in June 2020, protesters called for the end of OUSD's police force. Credit: Pete Rosos

On Wednesday, school board directors for the Oakland Unified School District will decide whether or not to disband OUSD’s special school police department. Of the roughly 1,000 school districts in California, Oakland is one of just 23 across the state—and the only one in Alameda County—with its own school police force.

The stakes are high for advocates on both sides of the issue. But the question itself isn’t new. Over the past 63 years, since OUSD first created its police department, many parents and students have pushed to eliminate the force. Others, including school officials, have fought to keep police on campus.

The arguments haven’t changed much over the years. Black families and others have continually raised questions about the necessity of police in schools, and whether OUSD’s police force has contributed to Black youth being criminalized. Other critics have also suggested that police on campuses do not address the root cause of children’s misbehavior, and that resources should be shifted to non-police programs. 

Supporters over the decades have claimed the force was needed to respond to violence and other serious disruptions within schools. Today, some say they are in favor of keeping school officers because those officers have specialized training to respond to youth—training city police don’t have.

Today, nationwide protests against police brutality and mass criminalization of Black Americans have put this issue back on the table in a big way in Oakland. To help provide historical context, The Oaklandside talked to historians, researchers, and public officials, and dug into newspaper archives and court documents to examine how Oakland came to have its own school police force in the first place, and how that force has evolved over the past six decades.

The early years

Oakland Unified School District established its police force in the 1950s, partly in response to Black migration to Oakland during and after World War II, according to historian Donna Murch, an associate professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Murch’s research focuses on African-American history, mass incarceration, and civil rights. In her 2010 book Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, Murch examined the social and political environments that fostered Oakland’s Black Power movement in the 20th century.

Many Black Americans migrated from the Jim Crow south to the Bay Area in the mid-20th century for opportunities in shipbuilding and other wartime industries. Between 1940 and 1980, according to U.S. Census data, the Black population in Oakland exploded from about 8,500 people to 159,000, or 47% of the population at its peak in 1980.

“Racial anxieties about the city’s rapidly changing demographics led to an increasing integration of school and recreational programs with police and penal authorities,” Murch wrote in a 2007 paper titled “The Campus and the Street: Race, Migration, and the Origins of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA.” 

“In this context, the discourse of ‘juvenile delinquency’ took on a clear racial caste, leading to wide-scale policing and criminalization,” Murch wrote about the post-WWII period. “Local politicians used Cold War metaphors of contagion and containment to describe Black residents with the greatest threat emanating from the youth.”

To address white residents’ fears, Murch’s research showed, the city government connected several departments, including schools, parks and recreation, and family services, with probation and criminal justice divisions to monitor “troublemakers” and delinquent youth. In 1957, Oakland Unified established its own police force. 

At first, the department was small and did not interact with students often. It began with two officers who were tasked with patrolling campuses and other district buildings and responding to burglar alarms. Calls regarding more serious alleged crimes were left to the Oakland Police Department.

At the same time, Murch wrote, Black Oaklanders pushed to desegregate local schools, and Black community members spoke out about unequal resources in their schools, as well as increased police presence over the next decade.

In 1963, the president of the Northern California chapter of the NAACP called on Black residents to track and report school principals who frequently called the police on Black students, a point community members still make in 2020.

In 1968, racial clashes stemming from desegregation efforts at Fremont High School closed the school for several days. According to an Oakland Tribune article at the time, when Black students returned to campus, they protested the presence of police on campus and said police officers had brutalized them and called them racial slurs, including the n-word.

Black Panthers push back

In the early 1970s, the district’s police force began to take on a bigger role due to two incidents, said Manuel Criollo, an activist who researches the history of school police in California. As a doctoral student at the University of New Mexico, Criollo has studied school police departments in Los Angeles and Oakland and has organized campaigns to curb their power.

In 1973, an Alameda County grand jury investigating the district released a scathing report on violence and vandalism in Oakland schools, which put more pressure on district officials to address their disciplinary policies. According to a July 1973 article in the Berkeley Daily Gazette, the report tallied 29 attacks on school personnel, three robberies, and seven assaults on campuses, plus more than $300,000 in fire damage in 1972, largely caused by students. The grand jury recommended that the district increase law enforcement presence on campus and assign plainclothes police officers to monitor the high schools.

But many Black Oaklanders disagreed with the call to expand policing further into schools. That year, the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland in 1966, along with other community organizations, formed a “Coalition to Save Our Schools” to oppose any additional police presence in the schools. The coalition called for spending school funds on educational programs and facilities rather than on police. 

In an October 1973 issue of the Black Panthers’ weekly newspaper, an article criticized a $1.5 million program the district was considering to curb violence, which included keeping police records on students, enforcing truancy policies, and requiring high schoolers to carry identification cards. The Panthers also criticized the optics of “an all-white, non-Oakland based grand jury sitting in judgment of a school district with an over 65% Black student enrollment.”

“Nowhere is there the mention that improved facilities, improved teaching methods, concerned teachers, and subject matter that relates to the students’ experience and lifestyle would solve the problem,” the Panthers wrote.

The Panthers and their allies might have prevailed in stopping the program, were it not for an assassination.

At the time, Marcus Foster led the district as Oakland’s first Black superintendent. On Nov. 6, 1973, a few weeks after the Panther’s newspaper issued its call to action against school police, Foster was assassinated as he left an administrative building following a school board meeting. 

The murder was carried out by the Symbionese Liberation Army—a militant left-wing group—because of Foster’s support for school I.D. cards, which members saw as fascistic. For many, Foster’s killing solidified the need for police on district property, Criollo said.

“Unfortunately, because of that moment, it killed any momentum to stop policing in schools,” he said.

A flashpoint in the 80s

Tensions around school police reached another flashpoint in the 1980s, Criollo said, as momentum built behind a “victims bill of rights,” or Proposition 8. 

Passed by state voters in 1982, Proposition 8 was a part of a broader conservative movement against California’s relatively strong constitutional protections for people arrested and accused of a crime. Among other things, Proposition 8 established a fundamental right to safety for all students and staff of public schools. Following the passage of the law, school districts throughout the state, including Oakland, were sued for failing to keep students safe. This put pressure on districts to bring more police officers onto campuses. 

In 1981, an altercation between two white students, Edward Hardy and Stephen Hosemann at Montera Junior High School, now known as Montera Middle School, led to a lawsuit. According to the Los Angeles Times, Hosemann reported that Hardy robbed him. Hardy then assaulted Hosemann twice and was suspended and eventually expelled.

The next year, Hardy attempted to gain admission to Skyline High School, where many other Montera students were attending, but he was denied. His parents petitioned the district to allow him in, but Hosemann’s mother filed a lawsuit against OUSD to prevent Hardy from going to the same school as her son. 

In a 1986 ruling in that case, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Richard Bartalini ordered the district to create a plan to control violence in its schools, citing Proposition 8’s right to safety. OUSD appealed the decision until 1989, when a court ruled that schools could not be held responsible for students’ safety because Proposition 8 did not include any guidelines for making schools safer. 

But the 1989 ruling may have been too late, Criollo said.

“On a very simple level, they were arguing they couldn’t afford it. And they were also arguing, ‘We know we have incidents of violence and crime in schools, but they aren’t different from any other places,’” Criollo said. “Oakland kept on losing in court around trying to stop the expansion of police. Because they were continuing to lose in court, they had to move toward having police in schools.”

Partnership with OPD

By 1990, the district’s security division had become certified as a full-service police department with 10 officers, legal under the supervision of the Oakland Police Department. OPD provided a lieutenant to oversee the department, as well as 20 armed school resource officers, who have the power to make arrests and are responsible for keeping campuses safe and mentoring students. OUSD paid OPD for their services. 

Sheila Jordan, who was president of the Oakland Unified school board in 1988 and remained on the board until 1992, supported the move to give oversight to the Oakland Police Department.

“I raised the issue of, ‘Why is the district in the business of running a police force?’ It didn’t make any sense to use school dollars to pay for cars and guns and all the equipment that police use,” she told The Oaklandside. “We asked back then to have the Oakland police have a special training unit for people who dealt with kids.”

Also in the mid-1990s, parents exhausted with school violence decided to guard the schools themselves. They created “parent patrols” and monitored two East Oakland campuses to intervene in scuffles before police did, according to a 1994 article in the San Francisco Examiner.

This collaboration lasted until 1998, when the school district created a task force to examine police in Oakland schools. In early 1998, the state department of education released a report on school safety, noting that crime rates in Oakland schools had skyrocketed, including drug, assault, battery and sex offenses.

The task force recommended that OUSD sever ties with OPD and create a larger, independent department, under the school district’s authority, which would be paid for with federal, state, and local funding. In 1999, that department was created. But financial problems quickly caused the school district to reconsider.

In 2000, school board members began discussing making cuts to their police department as a way to save money. District officials also felt that the OUSD police—which cost the district about $2.5 million a year—provided poorer services than the previous OPD-run department and worsened student safety.

While the school board was considering disbanding their newly created police force, it was also negotiating a new labor union contract with the California School Employees Association, which represented school police officers. The union objected to the idea of disbanding the police department, but school board members and administrators denied they were planning on shutting down the OUSD police. The three-year contract with CSEA was ratified in January 2001, but four months later, in May, the school district announced it was eliminating the police department and subcontracting with OPD for police services. 

The 12 officers who had been laid off filed a complaint with the Public Employee Relations Board, a state commission that handles disputes between unions and employers. In 2005, the PERB ruled that OUSD wrongly excluded the CSEA union from negotiations over whether to disband the school police force and subcontract with OPD. The district was ordered to reinstate its police department, and did so in 2006.

Current controversies

In the years since, several controversies involving school police and security officers have renewed scrutiny over the need for police in schools, including a fatal police shooting in 2011 outside Skyline High School. 

Twenty-year-old Raheim Brown, a Black man, was sitting in a car near the school with a friend when two school sergeants approached them. The officers began wrangling with Brown, and Sergeant Barhin Bhatt fired several rounds at Brown, killing him. The shooting sparked an ongoing campaign to remove police from schools, a campaign that has gained significant traction since the May killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Neither officer was charged, and Bhatt was later named interim school police chief when former school police chief Pete Sarna resigned after making racist remarks, including slurs, towards other officers. 

In 2016, school security officers, captured on video, choked and dragged a 15-year-old Latino special-education student. The student later filed a lawsuit against the district.

Tensions flared again in October 2019, when more than two dozen police and security officers were assigned to watch over a school board meeting where officials would be discussing school closures. When parents and teachers disrupted the meeting, officers drew batons against the crowd and arrested six people. Several parents later brought a lawsuit against the district for violating their rights to free speech and assembly. 

The current school police chief, Jeff Godown, has overseen a gradual dwindling of the force. When he took over in 2014, the department had 20 sworn officers and 145 school security officers, Godown said. Now, there are 10 sworn officers and 47 school security officers.

“We aren’t overly burdened, but does it cause us a problem? We’ve learned to work and adapt with the personnel that we’ve had,” he said in an interview.

The department responds to about 1,000 calls a semester and makes a handful of arrests per year, numbers that opponents say support their position that the police can be disbanded. Between June 2019 and January 2020, three students were arrested, for carrying a concealed weapon, rape, and battery, respectively. 

Godown, who previously worked in the University of California San Francisco police department and the Los Angeles Police Department, said he views school police officers’ priorities differently than those of city police officers. 

“You’re not in the business of arresting people. You’re in the business of public service,” he said. “Our job is to solve the problem, and not turn it into an arrest or citation.”

To work in schools, officers have to receive at least 40 hours of special training, Godown said. His officers also receive yearly training with school officials in restorative justice practices, behavioral health, and working with youth. Most importantly, he said, officers receive on-the-job training in working at schools every day. The officers get to know the students, their families, teachers, and staff more than an “OPD officer who happens to get a call there” would, Godown added.

If the OUSD police department is eliminated, Oakland Police Department officers would respond to 911 calls. Some supporters, including board member Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, think this could result in worse outcomes for students, and has brought up that concern during board discussions.

“I think that it is disingenuous to sit here and think that OPD is going to show up with the same kind of compassion and the same kind of understanding about what is happening with our teachers and what is happening with our systems,” Hinton-Hodge said at a March 4 board 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].”

Calls to eliminate the police department, which have intensified over the past few weeks, are not a surprise to Chief Godown. For years, students, staff, and community members have remained opposed to police in schools, pushing the board to consider disbanding the department. In March, the school board, in a close vote, decided against reducing the number of sworn police officers from seven to four. That resolution, which failed by just one vote, provided more thrust for activists to accomplish their goal of eliminating the police department.

“I think the misconception is that this has only come up because of the unfortunate incident,” Godown said, referring to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, which has sparked demands for cities and schools to defund police. “Getting to this point took several years. This is not a surprise to myself or the officers.” 

School board members will discuss and vote on a resolution to eliminate the police force on June 24. If the resolution passes, Godown and his officers will still be involved in creating a plan to keep campuses safe without a police presence. 

“That alternative safety plan has a multitude of components: school security officers and how we’re going to deploy them in the future, social-emotional learning and restorative justice counseling, behavioral health people, and how we can build a culture and climate that’s going to be safe,” Godown said. 

Regardless of the outcome, the school board decision will not completely settle the issue alone. OUSD would turn to the Oakland Police Department for law enforcement—a department also facing calls for defunding.

And any decision the current school board makes could be overturned when new officials are elected.

That’s what former school board president Sheila Jordan, who also served as Alameda County superintendent until 2014, realized when OUSD once again implemented its own police force, years after the board placed the responsibility with OPD during her tenure.

“A lot of these struggles have been fought and won, and then a new administration comes in,” said Jordan. “Schools should be sanctuaries. Schools should be a place where kids can feel safe. If they don’t feel safe, they’re not going to do well in school and in life.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.