No Justice for Oakland Families, No Peace for Oakland School Board
The concept of restorative justice, an inclusive practice that prioritizes reconciliation over retribution, is indigenous to this continent. Its aim is to strengthen a community through open communication, replacing punishment with repair. Even though data proves that restorative justice practices can be effective, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) cut funding for its nationally-renowned restorative justice programs on March 6, 2019.
A month later on April 11, the Oakland City Council unanimously approved a resolution to give OUSD $800,000 to save some of the restorative justice programs because they are “paramount for the emotional and educational well-being of Oakland students.” Even though OUSD has implemented a widely acclaimed model of restorative justice practices in its schools, recent actions by district leadership are inconsistent with restorative principles.
Seven months after an Oakland Unified School District Board member choked a kindergarten teacher while trying to force her way through a picket line in order to vote to cut the district’s restorative justice program, six community members were arrested during the October 23rd School Board meeting. Zach Norris was one of five arrestees taken from that Board meeting in Eastlake to Oakland School Police headquarters in West Oakland, a building which used to be Cole Middle School. Norris, a parent at Kaiser Elementary School, was well aware of the building’s history because he has a friend who used to run the restorative justice program at Cole before OUSD closed the school in 2009.
In hindsight, Norris says that it is “both ironic and tragic” that people peacefully protesting school closures were arrested and brought to a former public school campus that has been turned into a police station. In that moment though, he was more concerned about the sixth arrestee, his wife Saru Jayaraman, who was taken to an emergency room with a ruptured knee ligament.
Disruptions at OUSD Board meetings, like the school closures that have prompted them, are not a new thing. However, the disruptions have been increasing in frequency as the district has found itself in another fiscal crisis and has been using that crisis to fast track austerity measures like cutting student support programs and closing, consolidating, or merging schools.
In January, when Roots International Academy in the East Oakland flatlands was threatened with closure, the community disrupted the meeting, and Roots students invited the School Board into a restorative justice circle. The Board members participated in the circle with the middle schoolers, and then voted to close the school.
In March, the Oakland Education Association settled a long contract fight with the District after a week long strike. As part of their settlement agreement, they won a six month moratorium on school closures, but when that moratorium expired in September, the Board quickly moved forward with their austerity agenda. On September 11, they voted to merge Kaiser Elementary onto the Sankofa Academy campus in North Oakland, and merge Oakland School of Language (SOL) onto the Frick Impact Academy campus in East Oakland.
Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell clarified in a recent e-newsletter that mergers are not closures. She said that while both strategies “COULD” be part of the District’s Blueprint for Quality Schools process, “there are some important distinctions” between the two methods of ending district operations at a school site. However, next year, SOL families will have to travel over a mile away to another school’s campus in another community’s neighborhood, and Kaiser families will have to travel three miles away to another school’s campus in another community’s neighborhood.
Meanwhile, both Sankofa and Frick will have to share their campuses with another school, and there will be two former public school campuses that won’t have a public school operating on them anymore (it’s unclear what these campuses will become).
In response to the major disruption in their lives that both mergers and closures cause, a group of students, parents, and educators formed Oakland Not For Sale (ONFS) to fight against the broader agenda to privatize public education, and they peacefully disrupted four of the bi-weekly Board meetings immediately following the September 11 vote.
Norris, one of the founders of Oakland Not For Sale, does not distinguish between mergers and closures, and said that OUSD’s Blueprint for Quality Schools process is “part of a national trend” of attempts to privatize public resources. He says that the group is demanding a moratorium on school closures until 2022, anticipating the passage of a tax reform ballot measure that would significantly increase funding for public education by then. He also points out that 16 of the 18 OUSD schools that have been closed since 2004 had served a majority black student population, but 14 of them have since become charter schools that do not serve a majority black student population. Norris said, “This is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Since the protestors’ first-hand experience with school police on October 23, the group also supports eliminating the OUSD Police Department, something that the Black Organizing Project (BOP) has been calling for since 2011 through their Bettering Our School System campaign.
BOP proposes redirecting the $6.5 million School Police budget to student support services like restorative justice programs. Their campaign has gained visibility in the wake of the October 23rd Board meeting.
When BOP’s Jessica Black showed up to the Board meeting on October 23, she encountered a scene that she describes as “ridiculous.” A metal barricade had been placed in front of the School Board stage and armed police stood behind the barricade. Black says that once the meeting started, an older woman walked up to the barricade and began speaking. Members of the crowd joined her, and then so did the police. Videos of the incident clearly show armed Oakland School Police beating unarmed parents and educators in front of children. Holding her traumatized 14 year-old daughter, Black observed the violence but kept her distance.“It was horrible,” says Black. “This is what we’ve been warning OUSD about.”
In an e-newsletter sent the following day, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell said that the events of October 23 were “troubling” and that the situation should be addressed “from a place of compassion,” but the District has still not offered an apology nor even an admission that the use of force was unwarranted. OUSD Spokesman John Sasaki said he cannot comment on this incident since there is a lawsuit pending.
At a community meeting in East Oakland organized that weekend to discuss the incident, School Board Director Shanthi Gonzalez described the crowd on October 23rd as “an angry mob” in an attempt to justify the actions of the police.
Saru Jayaraman, who was violently arrested in front of her young daughter, disagrees with that description. “We came with food, signs, musical instruments…children, parents, teachers…who even had the capability to be violent?” Since that night, her life has been “miserable.” According to Jayaraman, she was put in a submission hold which injured her shoulder, and then thrown to the ground by police. She has a ruptured knee ligament which requires surgery and she will be on crutches for months. “It’s been kind of a disaster for me,” she said, but adds that the resistance to school closures will not only continue, but keep growing. “They tried to silence us, but they totally miscalculated.”
Sure enough, attendance at the weekly Oakland Not For Sale meetings has ballooned from a dozen active members to about a hundred at the meeting after the October 23 incident. Meanwhile, the Board has continued to conduct business, holding two committee meetings behind closed doors, without having to hear public comments from the Oakland community. But before the November 13 Board meeting, which was open to the public, BOP held a rally to announce their plan to eliminate the OUSD Police Department by 2020. Showing solidarity with BOP was a variety of community groups, including Oakland Not For Sale, the Oakland Education Association, the Oakland Public Education Network, and the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America. Some Kaiser parents came dressed up as the billionaire privatizers that they say are controlling the School Board behind the scenes.
Inside the Board meeting, another peaceful protest shut down another meeting. The Board retreated to a private room closed off to the public to talk about, among other things, school mergers. Schoolchildren replaced the Board members on the dais and convened another “People’s School Board.”
Throughout the night, few, if any police were visible. As it turned out, none were needed at all.
District Spokesman John Sasaki says that the next Board meeting will be open to the public without new security precautions in the “hope that there are no disruptions.” He added, “If there are, the Board and staff will have to look at the options and determine the best course of action.”
“This is just the start,” says Norris, who is one of nine plaintiffs who has filed a claim against the District for the incident on October 23. “We’re going to keep showing up.”