News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
June 22, 2020
By Erica West
Since protests erupted across the country after the murder of George Floyd in Mineapolis, the rallying cry of this growing movement has become “defund the police!” Many are looking to eliminate police in schools as a way to demilitarize our schools and communities while also shrinking the share of public money that goes to police.
Oakland Unified is one of the few school districts in the nation with its own police department, and local activists are looking to change that. The leading force around this demand in Oakland has been the Black Organizing Project (BOP), who have been organizing around getting cops out of schools for years. After years of tireless activism, combined with the recent wave of protests against police brutality, it seems the time may have finally come for the Oakland School Police Department (OSPD) to be eliminated.
According to BOP’s “People’s Plan for Police Free Schools”, during the 2018-19 school year, the ratio of students per school psychologist in OUSD (Oakland Unified School District) was 965:1, while the National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio 25% to 50% lower than that for psychologists. For school social workers the ratio was 1619:1, while the recommended ratio is 400:1.
BOP also points out that in the past few years of deep budget cuts, OUSD has laid off 33 Restorative Justice officers and only 3 School Police officers, making it clear that the district leadership values policing and surveillance for students over mental health care and conflict resolution. When students are struggling, they need staff trained in conflict de-escalation, not police officers whose only recourse is violently detaining them.
The presence of police in schools doesn’t help students address conflict or feel safe, and instead contributes to what activists and scholars call the “school to prison pipeline.” When our schools have more cops and fewer support staff, students are more likely to be suspended or expelled and then come into contact with the juvenile criminal justice system. One study found that “even controlling for a school district’s poverty level, schools with officers had five times as many arrests for “disorderly conduct” as schools without them.” This dynamic has a disproportionate effect on Black and Brown students – in OUSD, Black students make up 26% of the student body, but make up 73% of the students arrested. These youth are the most likely to be in underfunded schools already, with not enough teachers, social workers, or psychologists. The old adage goes, “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For police officers, who have little to no training in child development, conflict resolution or restorative justice, every conflict should be resolved with force and violence.
The school to prison pipeline is a national problem, and a school district having its own police department, as OUSD does, only exacerbates the problem. OUSD schools are terribly underfunded, and could easily use the funds allocated to OSPD on other services. OUSD’s budget challenges were put on full display in the spring of 2019 when Oakland teachers went on strike, not only for better pay for themselves, but for better schools for their students. In addition to higher wages for themselves, these teachers were fighting for more nurses, psychologists, social workers and librarians. They knew that addressing the emotional and social needs of these young people is essential to creating a healthy learning environment.
More recently, demonstrations in the streets have demanded an end to police brutality and a rethinking of the function of police as a whole. Since the end of May, there have been sustained protests all across the country. In Oakland, organizations like BOP and the Anti Police Terror Project (APTP) have been organizing marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations, and putting pressure on the Oakland City Council and Oakland School Board to defund the police. For years, police budgets have been expanding as the budget for schools, healthcare and community programs have been slashed. This moment — with sustained protests in the streets and nationwide attention to the problem of police brutality and racism — seems like it could be a turning point.
On June 24th, the Oakland School Board will vote on the “George Floyd Resolution” put forward by BOP, which proposes eliminating the Oakland School Police Department . The resolution proposes that OUSD “no longer employ law enforcement or armed security presence of any kind within District schools.” The resolution also specifies that the funds that were previously used for OSPD — an estimated $2 million — will be reallocated “toward student support positions such as school-based social workers, psychologists, restorative justice practitioners, or other mental or behavioral health professionals.”
The resolution proposes that this be the beginning of a community-led process to increase safety and reduce conflict in our schools, including voices from students, parents, teachers, BOP, and others. This is an exciting addition, because we don’t want this to be the end of a conversation about safety, but the beginning of one. If we are able to reverse the trend of constantly increasing police budgets, and are able to reallocate that money how our communities see fit, we can deeply transform our schools and neighborhoods.
The entire nation is rethinking why police function the way they do, and why we address harm, conflict, and violence the way we do. Demands to defund the police have led many to broach the concept of prison abolition. People are revisiting the work of longtime police and prison abolitionists like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and abolitionist organizations like Survived and Punished and Critical Resistance. Prison abolitionists refer to abolition as a “positive project” because it is not merely about getting rid of prisons and police, but it is about building something new and investing in things that keep our communities safe and healthy – universal health care, jobs programs, mental health care and fully funded schools. We have that opportunity to build something new within Oakland schools: new ways of addressing harm and conflict, new ways to keep young people safe, and new ways of building community. It is imperative we make the most of this moment – put pressure on the Oakland School Board to pass this resolution, and begin to transform our schools for good.
To support the Black Organizing Project’s campaign to defund the Oakland Schools Police Department, call your Oakland school board director (contact info here) and demand they vote for BOP’s George Floyd Resolution at the June 24th school board meeting.
You can also join BOP and Oakland Education Association’s June 22 car caravan protest in support of the resolution.