police cars and yellow tape line the street in front of Rudsdale High School
Oakland Police Department members work the scene of a mass shooting at Sojourner Truth School that occurred in the afternoon on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022 in Oakland, Calif. A call came in at 12:30pm with six shooting victims. Credit: Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via AP

In the days and weeks since Sept. 28, when two gunmen unloaded more than 30 bullets at Rudsdale High School—injuring six people, including students and school staff—Oakland Unified School District officials, city leaders, students, parents, and others have weighed in at public meetings, in news articles, and on social media about how to best keep school campuses safe in Oakland.

Their opinions range from increasing the number of non-armed safety “ambassadors” at schools to having camera surveillance and metal detectors on campus, making greater investments in restorative justice, and even bringing back OUSD’s campus police force, which was disbanded in 2020.

The Oaklandside spoke with Oakland Unified’s former police chief, community organizers who spearheaded the district’s George Floyd Resolution to end on-campus policing, OUSD student leaders, and parents to gauge how people are viewing school safety in light of last month’s frightening violence, explore whether campus police might have made a difference, and consider what measures the district is currently taking to address community concerns.

Would OUSD police have made a difference at Rudsdale?

OUSD disbanded its police department in 2020, following a years-long campaign by the Black Organizing Project, after an Oakland school police sergeant shot and killed a young man, Raheim Brown, near Skyline High School in 2011. Nine years later, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police sparked protests against police brutality in Oakland and around the country, putting added pressure on Oakland’s school board directors to address the issue of campus police. At the time, Oakland Unified was the only school district in Alameda County with its own police force

On June 24, 2020, the OUSD board approved the George Floyd Resolution to disband its school police force and divert its $6 million annual budget to alternative programs addressing campus safety. Six months later, in December, the board unveiled a 200-page safety plan that lays out when teachers and school staff should call police, how to deal with mental health emergencies, and establishes a new culture and climate department.

In the hours following the shooting at Rudsdale, some were quick to criticize public officials who’d supported the movement to eliminate school police. And other episodes of violence at Oakland campuses both before and since Rudsdale have added fuel to the speculation that campus police would have made a difference. In August, police arrested a 12-year-old student at Madison Park Academy for accidentally shooting a 13-year-old student on campus. A few weeks before the Rudsdale shooting, police had responded to the King Estates campus—where Rudsdale is co-located with two other schools—for a reported stabbing, and recovered a weapon.

Despite the recent spate of violence and threats to Oakland schools, not everyone feels that having school police would have changed the outcome at Rudsdale. That includes the former police chief of the Oakland Schools Police Department, Jeffrey Godown. 

“The fact that there is not a police department in the district plays no bearing on this incident whatsoever,” Godown told The Oaklandside. “We would have been out handling other calls and we would have responded just like OPD.”

By 2020, the number of sworn police in the OSPD had dwindled to seven officers, two sergeants, and a police chief—not nearly enough to have an armed officer stationed on every campus. The department did, however, also include 47 unarmed school security officers—typically community members, many of whom grew up in Oakland and attended OUSD schools themselves, who were assigned to specific schools.

OSPD operated like a traditional police department: After receiving a call, officers would travel to a school to handle the situation. If an incident like the Rudsdale shooting had happened when OSPD was around, the officers would have had to travel to campus just as the Oakland Police Department did, Godown said.

Godown added that it would be financially unrealistic for school districts like Oakland Unified to support a police force with enough officers to station one at every school. “You can’t put a cop in one school and not put them in another. This would be an astronomical amount of money. It would run somewhere between $17 and $22 million a year to be able to house a police officer at every school full-time.”

Natalie Gallegos Chavez, a student director on the OUSD board and a senior at Oakland High School, said she hears those concerned about safety who are questioning the board’s decision to do away with police. But the recent episodes of campus violence, she said, aren’t reasons to re-introduce police to school campuses.

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

“The George Floyd resolution was done for a reason,” said Gallegos Chavez. “It was done because our students feel unsafe with police in their schools—and I feel this should be respected.”

OUSD’s current safety plan replaced security officers with ‘climate and culture ambassadors’

After the passage of the George Floyd Resolution, OUSD’s school security officers transitioned into “culture and climate keepers,” who provide security, patrol campuses, monitor hallways, form relationships with students, and address student behavioral issues and conflicts. The culture keepers are trained in restorative justice principles and implicit bias to take a less punitive approach to discipline. 

OUSD currently has about 46 culture and climate keepers who are primarily assigned to middle and high schools, and 10 ambassadors in supervisory roles. The Black Organizing Project, which has been collaborating with Oakland Unified to overhaul campus safety procedures in the absence of a district police force, envisions growing the program to eventually have at least five culture keepers at every school, who know students well enough to intervene in conflicts before they escalate.

“They don’t carry handcuffs, they report to a security adviser rather than having to report to police or a policing entity,” said Desiree Mims, a communications organizer for the Black Organizing Project. “Imagine that we have multiple of those people on campus that can monitor what’s going on and have regular conversations, adequate training, and cultural competency? That would create and start to foster a safer school climate because, ultimately, we know that violence and what we view as crime all has root causes, and none of that is going to be addressed by policing.”

Gloria Mendoza, a former school security officer who transitioned into the culture keeper role, stands outside in front of Lockwood STEAM Academy on the first day of school in Oakland. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Godown, who was OSPD police chief for six years, agreed that having culture keepers on every campus will make students safer. “You’re going to get a chance to really understand who’s beefing with who, who’s got issues with who, what fight occurred, and you’re staying ahead of some of these issues where you can help to try to prohibit this from happening,” he said. “It’s that information that we need to get to be able to circumvent the incident before it occurs.”

Janell Hampton, a labor relations representative for the California School Employees Association, represented the rank-and-file OSPD officers for about two years, until the department was disbanded. She too said that having safety staff who are familiar with campuses and school communities is critical—but she believes the district lost that when it decided to eliminate its school police force. 

While she commended OPD for its response to the Rudsdale shooting, Hampton suggested that school police could have helped clear the campus more efficiently.

“There is a difference when the municipal PD responds to any school district site and when a smaller police department that’s part of the district, who’s been trained in who these students are, what the community looks like, and what the campus looks like, responds,” Hampton said. “How many of the officers who showed up to King Estates had walked the campus before and knew the campus like the back of their hand? How many of them had already known who were employees there and who were not?”

OUSD’s new school safety plan includes guidelines for when to call 911, when to call police non-emergency lines, and when to call an OUSD support line. Since its implementation, police calls have gone down drastically. From August 2021 to April 2022, schools made 397 calls to an internal district support line and 134 calls to police. During the same time frame of the 2019-2020 school year, schools made 1,814 calls to police, according to a report from May. 

While much has been accomplished in the implementation of the George Floyd Resolution, there’s still more work to do, Mims said. The biggest hurdle has been maintaining consistent funding to support expanding the culture and climate department, including livable wages for the culture keepers. Of the roughly $6.2 million OUSD spent on maintaining its police department annually, about $3.4 million had to go toward paying out salaries and benefits to the officers who were laid off in 2020, while the rest was available to support the new safety plan.

“We knew going in that this would be at least a three to six-year process, so there needs to be regular, adequate funding to this implementation,” Mims added.

Could ‘violence interrupters,’ metal detectors, or security cameras help?

After the Rudsdale shooting, acting OUSD Superintendent Sondra Aguilera said the district would be reviewing its campus safety protocols to see what improvements can be made. 

“We are collaborating with the Oakland Police Department to gain more information about the violence happening in our communities and also partnering to invest more in violence prevention programs and bringing more staff that are violence interrupters to our campuses,” Aguilera said at an Oct. 6 meeting.

Taking a more holistic and preventive approach is essential in creating safer schools, Mims said. Part of that could include working with local nonprofits to bring “violence interrupters”—individuals employed by violence prevention organizations who are familiar with the neighborhood can help resolve interpersonal conflicts before they intensify—to OUSD campuses. 

“The community-based organizations that are from that neighborhood, folks who are also from the neighborhood, they understand the landscape and what’s going on with the kids and what they experience,” Mims said. “There’s so many individuals and roles that exist that create a combination of what could be a healthy school environment that are just consistently gutted and consistently defunded.” Mims and the Black Organizing Project are also advocating for OUSD to invest more in restorative justice practitioners, school nurses, and behavioral intervention specialists. 

Godown, the former school police chief, said that school safety is not only about addressing the problems on one specific school campus, but pressuring leaders to take a more proactive approach to violence on campus. “Every school shooting that occurs, [politicians] come out and they talk about doing all kinds of things but they just don’t do anything about it. They don’t secure the schools. They don’t give them more funding to be able to secure the schools,” Godown told The Oaklandside. “A week or two from now, you and I won’t be having this conversation anymore. This won’t be on the news anymore.”

The student school board members, Gallegos Chavez and Linh Le, both seniors at Oakland High School, said they’ve heard from students who don’t feel safe on their school campuses and are calling for more training for the culture keepers. The student directors are working on a survey to Oakland students about school violence and what would make them feel safer on campus, which they’ll present to the rest of the board at a future meeting.

“No one should be able to enter our schools with a gun. We need to create a safe space in our schools for our students because our young people should not be looked at as if they were a part of these crime statistics,” Gallegos Chavez said during a school board meeting hours after the Rudsdale shooting. “It is so sad and frustrating that so many events that occur in our school sites go unheard of with no change to ensure school safety.”

Michael McDaniel is a father whose son attends Bay Area Technology School, or BayTech, the 6th to 12th grade charter school that shares a campus and some common areas with Rudsdale and Sojourner Truth, OUSD’s independent study school, on the King Estates campus. McDaniel has been frustrated with what he views as a lack of response from Oakland Unified on strengthening campus safety and security.

Some immediate changes McDaniel suggested are metal detectors and making sure security cameras are positioned to get a complete view of who is entering school buildings. In the video footage released from the Rudsdale shooting, an awning obscures the gunmen’s faces as they run towards the door of the building. 

McDaniel falls in the middle on the issue of school police. “I don’t think it’ll be very effective or safe for them to be on campus without the appropriate amount of training,” said McDaniel, an Oakland native. Without training, he said,  “we’re going to keep having people getting knees in their backs and on their necks and wrong chokeholds and kids getting body slammed and everything else that’s happened.”

Some of the Oakland student leaders we recently spoke with also suggested metal detectors or backpack checks as a way to prevent students from bringing weapons to campuses. 

McDaniel, who serves as political director and family organizer for Families in Action, an Oakland advocacy group for charter school families, added that it’s instrumental for youth and parent voices to be part of the conversations on securing school campuses.  

“It’s not fair that youth have to feel like they can’t even walk to school safely, that they don’t have the right to safely get an education,” McDaniel said. “A lot of what people are feeling and saying now is that it’s not just important that the environment is safe, but it’s an environment they can actually thrive in.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.