It has often been stated by various Oakland Unified School District Board Members that budgets are value statements. On March 4, when the OUSD School Board made $18.8 million in budget cuts, four Board members refused to cut even a portion of the Oakland School Police Department: Board President Jody London, and Directors Jumoke Hinton-Hodge, Gary Yee,and James Harris all refused to eliminate even three positions within the department.
On June 24, those four Board members may have a chance to change their values and eliminate the whole Department.
At the Board meeting on June 10, Board Vice President Shanthi Gonzalez and Board Director Roseann Torres, both of whom voted to make the cuts to the School Police on March 4, introduced the George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department. Gonzalez and Torres worked with the Black Organizing Project to draft the resolution, which could be voted on during the last scheduled Board meeting of the year on June 24, 2020.
The resolution would require immediate action by the District in order to implement the policy by next school year, which starts in August.
Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell announced that she was developing her own “safety plan” that would also eliminate school police, but it wouldn’t be implemented until January 2021.
Over the past two weeks, local activists led by BOP have been lobbying Superintendent Johnson-Trammell and the four Board members who were against cutting the OSPD budget. The lobbying campaign thus far seems to have changed the minds of at least two of those Board Members, as President London and Director Yee expressed support for the Superintendent’s plan.
In addition, 45 Oakland school administrators, mostly from middle and high schools, signed a letter in support of BOP’s call to eliminate the OUSD school police force, which currently includes 10 officers and over 50 School Security Officers. The district said the budget for the 10 armed police officers is $2.25 million.
Well over 500 attendees participated in the June 10 School Board Zoom meeting or watched it on TV or online, and all but one public commenter supported eliminating the school police.
As the Denver and West Contra Costa School Boards recently joined Minneapolis and Portland in the movement towards police-free schools, Oakland Voices spoke with two veteran Oakland Public School Principals to get their thoughts about the idea of expelling the police from Oakland public school campuses.
Matin Abdel-Qawi, Principal at Oakland High School
Matin Abdel-Qawi has been the Principal at Oakland High School for the past seven years. Prior to that, he spent two years in the District’s Office of African American Male Achievement program after putting in 10 years as the Principal at Castlemont High School.
Abdel-Qawi says he supports eliminating OSPD “100%.”
He admitted that he might have had a slightly different answer a year ago, but even back then, he says he still saw greater value in Restorative Justice (RJ) programs and mental health services to provide for students’ social and emotional needs.
Now though, after an unprecedented past few months, he says that he is “done with the idea that armed police belong in schools.There is never a need for an armed officer to come on campus.”
Abdel-Qawi says that armed police don’t provide sufficient value that outweighs the negative impacts they have on poor Black and brown students like “oppression, terror, and murder.”
The 17 year veteran Principal of flatland high schools in Oakland says that in his experience, police scare children and make them uncomfortable, and that isn’t conducive to learning.
“They don’t prevent school shootings; the best they can do is ask questions after the fact,” adding that an armed police officer is not required for that task.
He laughed at the assertion that teachers call the police too often, pointing out that administrators, not teachers, call the police. As an administrator, he said instead of calling the police, “I would gladly call other resources.”
Abdel-Qawi says that while sometimes there are people who come to campus with ill-intent, he and his staff can handle the majority of those situations without a gun.
He describes his unarmed School Security Officers as “People who use verbal judo skills to build relationships with students.”
There is no restorative justice program at Oakland High, but there is a health clinic on campus with restorative justice-trained case managers.
Abdel-Qawi says that we all have to rethink how to provide safety for our students. “Everything is an alternative to armed police.”
He adds that he is also a proponent of creating positions called Climate and Cultural Ambassadors, unarmed staff who would be trained in RJ practices, de-escalation, and relationship building.
Abdel-Qawi says that while he is confident in his staff, he understands that not every campus is in that same situation.
On an emotional level, he says that he would prefer to get rid of the school police immediately. However, he understands that that would be irresponsible, and agrees with Superintendent Johnson-Trammell’s December timeline.
“A lot of work needs to be done,” he says about building a replacement structure that could ensure that students feel safe and taken care of. “Let’s not be hasty, systems need to be put in place.”
Kilian Betlach, Principal of Elmhurst United Middle School
Principal Kilian Betlach has been an administrator on the Elmhurst United Middle School campus since 2009. He has been a Principal for the past eight years.
Elmhurst United was created last year through the merger of two schools that had been sharing the site, Alliance Academy and Elmhurst Community Prep. The brand new Elmhurst United also had to accommodate students who had been displaced from the closures of Roots International Academy and Epic Middle School.
Betlach is spending his summer participating on a District workgroup tasked with reopening schools safely in the fall.
He doesn’t just support eliminating police from schools, he went so far as to write the letter in support of BOP’s campaign that was signed by forty-four other school administrators. A copy of the letter can be found on Elmhurst United’s Instagram account.
“You hear kids’ stories about their unease and lack of security around police,” says Betlach.
“There’s a point where you have to stand with the community, and listen to their voices.”
In his opinion, the school police are overused, and he feels that they should be the option of last resort.
“The lives of our students won’t be enriched by interacting with the criminal justice system.”
The first step to imagining police-free schools has to be a change in peoples’ “mindset,” says Betlach.
He pointed out that we judge the same behaviors in children differently depending on the color of their skin. What is viewed as kids-being-kids in one neighborhood is seen as a criminal offense in another neighborhood.
He offered up graffiti as an example. He feels like it is an act that should not be tolerated, but it also shouldn’t necessitate calling the police.
“These actions need not be viewed through a criminal lens,” Betlach says.
He also says that the opportunity for children to learn from their mistakes and to grow from them, is an “unacknowledged privilege” afforded to affluent white children, but not to poor Black and brown children.
Like Abdel-Qawi, Betlach speaks highly of his staff.
In his experience on the Elmhurst campus, funding for the restorative justice program has been a budget priority since even before the District started funding it. Betlach, echoing the mantra of many elected officials, says that “Budgets are statements of values.”
As for the School Security Officers, Betlach says that the good ones go beyond their written job description and always center the value of a school and the role that it should play in a community. He adds that the job description needs to continue to evolve based on how some SSOs “have shown us what the job should be.”
More Information and Next Steps
The School Board held a special meeting on June 17 to evaluate itself and vote to adopt a governance handbook for next year.
The Board’s last scheduled meeting of the tumultuous 2019-2020 school year will be on June 24, when they will have the opportunity to vote on the George Floyd Resolution or otherwise commit to Superintendent Johnson-Trammell’s “safety plan.”
In either situation, the Oakland School Police Department that BOP has been trying to eliminate throughout the past decade appears to be on the chopping block.