After two weeks of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police, people across the nation have moved from being angry at police violence against Black and brown people to questioning the value that police bring to a community in the first place.
After the University of Minnesota announced it would no longer use the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) for security at on campus events, the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to end its contract with MPD as well. Portland Public Schools followed suit, and also announced the discontinuation of its armed School Resource Officer program.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced last week that the city will cut up to $150 million from the Police Department budget and divert the money to youth employment programs, health services, and “peace centers” aimed at helping residents deal with trauma. This past weekend, a majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle its existing Police Department in favor of a new public safety system.
Now, a local campaign led by Black activists in Oakland to transform OUSD by expelling school police is gaining momentum. OUSD is the only district in Alameda County with its own police force.
People all over the world know the name Oscar Grant, but not everyone in Oakland knows the name Raheim Brown. In 2011, Raheim Brown was shot and killed by an Oakland School Police Department (OSPD) officer.
Brown, an Alameda resident, was 20 years-old when he was shot and killed by OSPD Sergeant Barhin Bhatt on an Oakland city street, not on a school campus.
Bhatt’s partner that night, Jonathan Bellusa, maintains that OUSD interfered in the Oakland Police Department (OPD)’s investigation into Brown’s killing and covered it up. While Bellusa resigned and ended his career in law enforcement over that cover up, Bhatt became OSPD Chief seven months after the shooting.
Bhatt replaced Chief Pete Sarna, who resigned after unleashing a belligerently racist rant on subordinates during a ride home from drinking “to excess” while golfing on the job. Sarna had become OSPD Chief in 2009, two years after a seven-month stint with the Oakland Police Department that ended after he crashed a state-owned SUV while driving drunk.
In 2013, the family of Raheim Brown and the mother of his child (who hadn’t yet been born at the time of his killing) were paid a combined settlement of $995,000 by OUSD.
In response to Brown’s killing, the Black Organizing Project (BOP) started their Bettering Our School System campaign to address the issue of police violence against youth to try to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Since then, BOP has helped the district establish a formal process for submitting complaints about school police and helped remove “willful defiance” as a justification for discipline. “Our kids deserve schools free of intimidation and punitive discipline,” Jasmine Williams of BOP said.
Last fall, community members began peacefully disrupting board meetings to protest school closures. After less than a month of such disruptions, several protesters were beaten by OSPD officers and taken to a former public school campus which had been closed down and is now the OSPD headquarters. Several protesters suffered serious injuries, including one mother who suffered torn knee ligaments. They have a lawsuit pending against the district.
In November 2019, BOP introduced their People’s Plan for Police-Free Schools, a community-sourced implementation guide for reinvesting the School Police Department budget into student support programs. OUSD has 10 police officers, plus 57 unarmed School Security Officers who report to the OSPD chief.
Williams says that BOP wants to eliminate the school police force, potentially freeing up several million dollars ($6 million includes the police officers and the SSOs). She said the SSOs could be moved to a different department, where they would be trained to have more of a restorative justice focus. OUSD had a nationally acclaimed restorative justice program that was cut last year as part of a $20 million budget reduction. The City of Oakland later agreed to fund part of the program for the 2019-2020 school year.
With the issue of violence against Black communities, the use of force and teargas against mostly peaceful protestors in Oakland, and a citywide curfew announced while a youth-led action was already in motion last week, plus the elimination of police in schools in several school districts and colleges across the nation, several protests took place in the past few days just focusing on eliminating the OUSD police force.
On Friday, June 5, peaceful protests took place in front of the houses of OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell and four School Board Directors: James Harris, Jody London, Gary Yee, and Jumoke Hinton-Hodge. There was also a car caravan at La Escuelita, and another event for families with toddlers at Laurel Elementary School.
The four Board members were targeted because they had all opposed cutting even a portion of the OSPD budget back on March 4, a night when they made $18.8 million in cuts elsewhere in the district’s budget. The Board tasked Superintendent Johnson-Trammell with crafting a “safety plan” that did not include school police, but she was given until the fall to unveil it. In April, OUSD Board members gave the OSPD a 6 percent bonus and 5 percent raise. Their contract ends in a year.
The Board is scheduled to finalize next year’s budget on June 24. According to Willams, School Board Director Roseann Torres plans to introduce a resolution to eliminate the OSPD at this Wednesday’s School Board meeting.
BOP’s Williams says that the mere presence of police in schools increases the risk of sending kids down the school-to-prison pipeline.
In Oakland in 2015-2016, Black students made up only 26% of the OUSD population, but accounted for 73% of OSPD arrests.
Statistics show that nationwide, Black students are disproportionately referred to law enforcement or arrested, and research shows that these higher discipline rates for students of color are not due to higher rates of misbehavior, but instead due to systemic racism. A March 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office confirmed the disparities in how discipline is administered to Black students and students with disabilities.
Williams adds that while OUSD claims to be a “sanctuary district,” police don’t make kids feel safe, and the threat of violence is antithetical to the nurturing culture that should exist in a school. What students need more than armed police are librarians, nurses, counselors, case managers, and restorative justice practitioners, she said.
“Our students need healing,” said Denison Garibo, who recently graduated from Oakland High School and served on the OUSD School Board as a Student Director. He agrees with OUSD school getting rid of its police force and the work that BOP is doing.
He described his experience with school police as “harassment of youth of color.” He says that he often wears hoodies “because it’s cold in Oakland,” but he would take off his hoodie in the presence of police for fear of harassment. “They’re just looking for a target, and I’m not trying to be that target.”