Oakland Unified School District board members on zoom
The Oakland Unified School District board voted to eliminate its police department Wednesday night. Credit: Ashley McBride

Oakland Unified School District leaders voted unanimously Wednesday night to eliminate their school police department by Jan. 1, 2021, and initiate a community input process to create a new school safety plan. Teachers, principals, students, parents, and community members will be invited to contribute to the plan beginning in August.

The vote was the culmination of a yearslong campaign by the Black Organizing Project, a community organization, and OUSD families to remove police from schools. The Black Organizing Project-led campaign was given new energy by local and nationwide protests against police violence following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May. The resolution to disband the OUSD police—which currently employs 47 unarmed school security officers, seven sworn police officers, two sergeants, and a police chief—was named in honor of Floyd.

Advocates of elimination have pointed to the disproportionate impact of punitive disciplinary policies on Black students in OUSD, leading to their criminalization, a discriminatory process known as the school-to-prison pipeline. According to a 2013 report by the Black Organizing Project, Black students comprised around 30% of OUSD students, but represented 73% of students arrested by OUSD school police.

“Police in schools are ultimately a symptom of a much larger issue,” said OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell at last night’s board meeting. “If we’re going to make progress, it’s not enough to merely remove the symptom. We have to transform the underlying conditions in the school system.”

The board’s decision to eliminate the police force also instructs district officials to redirect funds to educational services and other programs that “support Black students and all students of color,” like restorative justice coordinators and academic mentors. 

The news in Oakland is part of a larger national reckoning with the role of police in communities and schools. San Francisco and West Contra Costa school districts also voted to end their contracts with local police departments this week, and the Peralta Community College District’s board of trustees voted to end their contract with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department for patrols on campus. Two of Peralta’s four colleges, Laney and Meritt, are located in Oakland. 

Other school districts have recently rejected proposals to remove police from schools or cut police spending, including Chicago Public Schools and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

For decades, Oakland has been the only school district in Alameda County with its own police force. Calls for a police response on school campuses will now fall to the Oakland Police Department, which had its budget cut by 3% this week

Since the proposal to disband the police force was introduced two weeks ago, community members, students, and families participated in several marches and demonstrations against police in schools. OUSD’s student directors, Mica Smith-Dahl and Denilson Garibo, have been outspoken about their support for the resolution.

“Instead of cutting police, y’all keep on cutting assistant principals, restorative justice, and all of these needs that keep our youth of color on the right path,” Garibo said. “We do not believe policing is a worthy investment of funds for our youth.”

Yesterday’s vote represents a major shift in thinking by OUSD board members about the role of police. Three months ago, a resolution to eliminate just three school police officers from the district’s budget failed in a 3-4 vote. School board directors Jody London, Gary Yee, James Harris, and Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, who all voted against this previous cut to the police, have each since been persuaded to support the elimination of the entire police department.

“Thank you to all the young people that got a middle-aged guy to believe in the possibility that safety could be looked at differently,” Harris said at Wednesday night’s meeting. 

Director Hinton-Hodge has maintained that having a police force specially trained to deal with youth, as the Oakland school police officers are, is better than relying on officers with the Oakland Police Department. School police officers, by state law, receive extra hours of training that qualify them to work with students. OUSD’s officers also train yearly with the district specialists in behavioral health and restorative justice.

Hinton-Hodge has also said she wants to address systemic racism at every level of the district, and that removing police is just one piece. In past discussions, she brought up the prevalence of teachers and principals calling police on Black students. Those issues don’t go away when Oakland police officers begin responding to calls instead of district police, Hodge said.

“This resolution should reform not only policing and security, but reform what happens inside a classroom and inside our schools,” she said. “Criminalization starts in those spaces when people call the police on young people.”

During Wednesday’s board meeting, Hinton-Hodge introduced an amendment directing staff and the board to undergo implicit bias training, which was accepted into the resolution.

Janell Hampton, the union representative for the California School Employees Association, which represents OUSD’s seven rank-and-file sworn officers whose jobs will now be eliminated, noted the district’s contract with the union lasts until 2022, and said last night’s vote doesn’t settle the question of how to keep schools safe.

“This resolution is not the end, it’s the beginning,” Hampton said during the meeting. “The police will still be called because it’s a citizen’s right to call the police. The question is, if the police will be called, who do you want to answer? Oakland Police Department?”

District officials will negotiate with the unions that represent the laid-off workers to determine how they will fulfill the remainder of the contract.

“We’ve stood through the long school board meetings. We’ve stood through several superintendents. We’ve stood through transitions of school board members,” said Jackie Byers, the executive director of the Black Organizing Project. “We’ve still been here and we intend to be here through the community process to make sure that the community that has called for this is in fact at the table developing the vision of what’s to come.”

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.