The Oakland Unified School District’s new safety plan to eliminate the need for police in schools is taking shape, and one big change will be the role that school security officers play on campus.
School security officers were part of the Oakland School Police Department, but the school board voted to disband the department last year. Security officers, who don’t carry weapons and often have closer, friendlier relationships with students than police officers, have worried about their jobs since then.
“I was devastated when they were thinking about cutting us under police services,” said Tiffany Couch, a security officer who has been with the district for 15 years. “You can’t run a school without a school security officer.”
Many security officers grew up in Oakland or the East Bay, went to Oakland schools, and are valued members of school campuses. The new safety plan envisions keeping security officers, but having them focus less on enforcement of rules, and more on fostering a healthy environment on campuses.
OUSD staff have been working with members of the Black Organizing Project, the Oakland group that led the campaign to eliminate the school police department, to ensure that the new practices outlined in the safety plan approved in December will be in place for students to return to campuses, which could happen this month.
“We want to make sure the proper people are in place and ready to go to deal with the mental health issues that may arise, because we don’t want things to revert back to policing,” said Jessica Black, the black sanctuary director for BOP.
Members of the Black Organizing Project team helped create the new safety plan, including the new roles for school security officers to transition into.
Prior to the pandemic closing school buildings, security officers, who are predominantly Black, were responsible for patrolling the campus, intervening in fights or other altercations on campus, monitoring students in hallways and during lunch, and generally keeping order at school. They also sometimes provide security at events like graduations or school sporting events.
Beyond that, many school security officers become like surrogate parents to their students, and keep in touch with them long after they leave the school or graduate.
Gloria Mendoza serves as the security officer at OUSD’s Lockwood campus, which is home to Futures Elementary and Community United Elementary schools, and has been with OUSD since 1998. She takes a special interest in looking out for students who are being bullied, she said.
“A lot of us who have been here for years, we’re that grandma or auntie who can just sense trouble,” Mendoza said.
The security officers move around to different schools depending on need. Mendoza started at Melrose Leadership Academy, where her own children went to elementary school, and has worked at Urban Promise Academy and the now-closed Jefferson Elementary School before her current assignment at Lockwood.
School security officers have also taken on new roles during the pandemic. While their responsibilities still include overseeing campuses, where some teachers and staff are working, they also provide security during meal distributions, laptop and homework pickups, and they monitor the learning hubs that are at some schools.
Couch, who works as the security officer at Madison Park Academy, also helps with home deliveries of meals and school supplies for families at her school, and makes time to support the families she’s known for years. She spent hours at Highland Hospital earlier this week to support the family of a former student who was shot last week. The next morning, she made 51 deliveries of science kits to Madison Park Academy families.
“I remember going to school here in East Oakland and we didn’t really have role models or people who we could talk to in school if we had problems, who could help us through them,” said Couch, who worked at Frick Middle School and Fremont High School before coming to Madison Park Academy.
She also serves as the COVID-19 site safety lead for the school, which means she helps to make sure that the school is fully stocked with personal protective equipment and works with custodial services to ensure that classrooms and bathrooms are kept clean.
Like the police, security officers haven’t been without scandal. In 2014, security officers at Fremont High School choked and dragged a 15-year-old student who later brought a lawsuit against the district. Mendoza and Couch also said that they have at times felt targeted by critiques of police officers from students and other community members. Couch said that she stopped wearing her uniform that identified her as an officer last summer, in the aftermath of protests taking place in Oakland and across the country condemning police violence. Now, she tends to work in jeans and a Madison Park Academy t-shirt or sweatshirt.
OUSD employs about 50 school security officers, who will transition into new roles this year. As outlined in the school safety plan, their new roles will focus less on security and more on building relationships with students and families and creating a more restorative culture, instead of punitive. They’ll be part of a newly created “Culture and Climate” unit, which will also include behavioral health, mental health, and restorative justice staff.
School security officers haven’t always been part of OUSD’s school police department. In the 1990s, OUSD contracted with the Oakland Police Department to provide school-specific police and resource officers. Oakland Unified had its own short-lived district police department from 1999 to 2001, which security officers were part of. When that iteration of the police department was disbanded in 2001, security officers were housed under student services, until Oakland Unified reinstated its police department in 2006.