a row of lockers in West Oakland Middle School
A sign proclaiming "Respect" hangs above lockers in West Oakland Middle School. Credit: Pete Rosos

The Oakland Unified School District is one step closer to its goal of disbanding its police department. On Wednesday night, the school board approved a safety plan that outlines how school staff and administrators will respond to future emergencies, mostly without police. 

Just before the midnight vote, OUSD board members thanked the team of teachers, staff, and community groups who volunteered to draft the plan, and they commended the Black Organizing Project, the Oakland organization that has been advocating for a decade to dismantle the school’s police department. Six of the seven school board directors voted for the new plan, while outgoing District 3 Director Jumoke Hinton Hodge abstained.

The new 200-page safety plan changes the district’s policies so that there are fewer situations in which school staff are required to call the police for help. For example, some threats and serious bullying that required police calls no longer will.

“Many of the calls to service were for things that police should not be responding to. But police were an option, so people continued to call them, and students continue to be criminalized,” said Jessica Black, the Black Sanctuary Director for the Black Organizing Project.

In some situations that previously required a call to police and filing a police report about the incident afterward, the new plan will make the police report optional. Those cases include robberies and brandishing knives. 

In the situations where police are still needed, Oakland Police Department officers, who are employed by the city, not OUSD, will respond. These situations include active shooters, bomb threats, sexual assaults, medical emergencies, when a student assaults a teacher or staff member, and when someone contacts a school about a missing child.

The team also created a new procedure for responding to mental health emergencies. Previously, the Oakland School Police Department handled several dozen calls a year for mental health crises, including suicide threats. Under the new safety plan, school staff will rely on psychologists or social workers to show up and conduct a screening of a student experiencing a mental health crisis.

Reducing the school-to-prison pipeline, a pattern of school discipline policies that disproportionately push Black students into the criminal justice system, will take cultural change along with policy change, Black said.

“Change is not going to happen at some table, change is going to happen at the school sites,” said Black, who has been leading the creation of the safety plan.

To encourage cultural change at OUSD, staff and administrators will receive training on de-escalation, mental health, crisis prevention, and the new protocols for when it’s appropriate to call police.

Another big change will be establishing a culture and climate department. School security officers, who are currently employed by the police department, but often had friendlier relationships with students than the police officers, will retrain and transition into the new department andl focus on building relationships with students, and mediating conflicts through restorative justice exercises.

OUSD’s police department hasn’t been disbanded yet

Despite a unanimous approval of the safety plan Wednesday night, and of the George Floyd Resolution in June, the process of disbanding OUSD’s police department has not been seamless. The George Floyd Resolution directed the superintendent to eliminate the police department before Jan. 1, 2021, or as soon as legally allowed, which led many to expect that the district’s nine officers and chief would be laid off by Dec. 31. But the district didn’t send out the layoff notices on time. State law requires employers to give a 60-day layoff notice, so the district’s officers will still be employed by OUSD into 2021.

It’s not clear yet exactly how long the police department will still exist.

The Oakland School Police Department, which was first established in 1957 as a two-officer force, employs seven sworn police officers, two sergeants, a police chief, and 47 unarmed school security officers. In the spring, police chief Jeff Godown will be responsible for dismantling the department and getting rid of police equipment, including cars and weapons. 

Of the $6.2 million that the school district budgeted for its police department for the 2020-2021 school year, about $3.4 million has to be paid out in salaries and other compensation owed to the laid-off officers. The rest of the budget will go towards the new culture and climate positions, training, and other needs defined by the safety plan.
In January, the team that created the new safety plan will invite more people to join them in creating anti-racism training, reforming school disciplinary rules, and coming up with a way to measure the impact of eliminating police in schools. Those who want to get involved can email info@blackorganizingproject.org.

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.