Oakland school board student directors Anevay Cruz (left) and Vida Mendoza have called on OUSD to provide better training for the school-based culture keepers who have replaced security guards on campuses, in the wake of a bomb threat and school shootings that have shaken local school communities. Credit: Amir Aziz

Recent threats and violent events at Oakland schools prompted a fierce discussion about campus safety among district leaders and community members at Oakland Unified’s most recent school board meeting.

Sept. 13 was the first board meeting since a bomb threat shut down classes at Chabot Elementary on Aug. 29, and a shooting at Skyline High School on Sept. 5 sent that campus into a “lockdown” procedure and canceled classes the next day. Also last month, fights broke out among hundreds of teenagers, including many OUSD students, at the Bay Street shopping center. 

There were also several violent events on Oakland campuses last year: A mass shooting at Rudsdale High School killed one person and injured five more, a student was stabbed by a classmate at Skyline, and a middle school student was shot at Madison Park Academy. On numerous other occasions, Oakland schools went into lockdown procedures—when school entrances are locked and no one is allowed to come or leave—because of threats in the surrounding neighborhood. 

“The concern for education is immense right now but my biggest thing is safety. These kids aren’t feeling safe at a lot of schools,” said Tiffany McDermott, who works at Madison Park Academy. “It’s hard to go to class and read when you have to worry about whether you’re going to be safe if there’s a lockdown, or if there’s a kid that’s going to actually follow through on bullying. That’s a real concern in the community.”

What the city and OUSD are doing to increase safety at Oakland schools

District leaders acknowledged the safety crisis occurring at schools and laid out what measures have been implemented, as community members and school board directors pressed OUSD officials about what more can be done to ensure students’ safety. 

“The concern and disruptions that these incidents have caused our school communities cannot be understated,” said Dexter Moore Jr., the superintendent’s chief of staff. “And I want to make it clear that the physical, social-emotional, and cybersecurity (safety) for every student, educator, and family in our district is a critical priority that we recognize with a great deal of urgency and care.” 

OUSD’s facilities and buildings and grounds teams have been working to install door controls and security cameras at schools across the district, prioritizing schools in neighborhoods with high violent crime rates, Moore said. In recent years, 65 schools have installed door controls, 235 new cameras have been installed, and 275 existing cameras have been repaired. District teams are also ensuring that fences along campus perimeters are intact, Moore added. 

The city’s Department of Violence Prevention currently funds violence interruption teams at Castlemont, Rudsdale, McClymonds, Bunche, Oakland, Dewey, and Fremont high schools, working in collaboration with community organizations CURYJ, Youth Alive, and Community & Youth Outreach.

The district’s senior leadership is expected to present a safety assessment to the school board in November, with recommendations for additional safety processes and infrastructure. But school board directors last Wednesday urged that immediate actions be taken to alleviate parents’ and students’ concerns. 

“Some people might say, well as long as no one was seriously hurt, then everybody’s fine,” said District 1 Director Sam Davis. “I don’t think the teachers at that school are fine. Students can’t learn when they’re worried for their safety. They’re not fine. The city of Oakland is not fine. I’m not fine.”

Calls to revisit OUSD school security and provide better training to culture keepers

Director VanCedric Williams, who represents District 3, urged the board to revisit the George Floyd Resolution that it approved in 2020 to disband the OUSD police department in the wake of nationwide protests over police violence. OUSD partnered with the Black Organizing Project to create a new district safety plan, which Williams said has not been fully implemented. 

“We’re going out and getting violence prevention and intervention folks, and we’re hiring outside companies and we’re doing this and everything else except what our agreement was, which was follow through on the George Floyd Resolution,” Williams said. “Number two, we don’t have a director of public safety. We have no one that can create a comprehensive plan. And we need somebody to create a plan and implement something. We’re playing games with these kids’ lives.”

The two student directors on the school board, who attend Oakland High School and Life Academy, have stated that one of their focal points for this school year is students and campus safety. In a survey of about 1,100 middle and high school students last year, students reported that some of their biggest safety concerns are fights, weapons, and campus lockdowns. 

The student directors meet regularly with district leadership to discuss safety concerns, and have recommended better training for school-based culture keepers who replaced security officers on campuses after the George Floyd Resolution. The idea behind culture keepers is that they are Oakland community members, many of whom attended Oakland public schools and are familiar with the neighborhood, who can intervene in disputes between students before they become violent. But the student directors said the program has yet to deliver fully on its promise.

“One thing that students keep bringing up repetitively is having better trained culture keepers. We have culture keepers on our sites and they’re just not doing what they’re meant to do,” said student director Vida Mendoza. “Students see it and the position is being taken advantage of because they’re not really helping our students. If we can better train the culture keepers and provide them with better pay—because I know they’re not paid very well—that could be very helpful for our students instead of having metal detectors and security.”

One recent job posting lists a salary range of roughly $25,000-$40,000 for a full-time culture keeper at OUSD.

Phyllis Copes, the president of SEIU Local 1021’s OUSD chapter, said that the district is collaborating with SEIU to provide training to the culture keepers. 

Campus safety measures will be discussed again at the OUSD facilities committee meeting on Thursday, Sept. 21. The next regular school board meeting is Wednesday, Sept. 27. You can learn more about the Oakland school board and how to participate in meetings here.

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.