It’s not uncommon for angry groups to gather outside the Oakland Unified School District building before a school board meeting to protest an item on the agenda. It is less frequent that the protesters are so young that, when the ice cream man comes by trundling his barrow of frozen treats, most of them run to buy Popsicles.
That was the scenario two weeks ago, when the board met to hash out a deceptively simple question: Who should provide security to the Oakland public schools? From 1990 to 1999, it was the Oakland Police Department. Two years ago, the school district broke off the deal, claiming that the OPD was too slow to respond to on-campus problems because the officers were out trolling the surrounding neighborhoods. The district then hired its own independent force of fourteen officers. Paying for their own security force was expensive–about $2 million a year–and now the district wants to go back to the old system so that the city will once again pick up the tab.
But outside the meeting, Diana Oliva, an organizer from the youth activist group Olin, was rallying about fifty high school students, many of whom were sporting T-shirts and gold-foil star-shaped stickers that read “No OPD in our schools.” Why don’t they ask parents, why don’t they ask students, the youth that go to those schools, what can we do to solve those issues?” she shouted into a bullhorn. “I don’t want to see cops in our schools, what I want to see is ethnic studies, violence prevention programs, better teachers, better schools.” The student protesters included members of groups like Youth Together, the “No OPD in Our Schools” coalition, and a Castlemont High School-based group called YACIN, or Youth Against Community Injustice–Nia. (Nia is Swahili for “purpose.”) The turnout was all the more impressive when you consider that it was also the evening of Castlemont’s senior graduation.
The last two years have been bad for relations between youth and cops: California voters passed Proposition 21, which makes it easier for teenagers to be incarcerated for a wide range of infractions; racial profiling has continued to make headlines; and the West Oakland Riders case, in which four city cops were accused of beating innocent people and planting evidence, has done little to assuage some students’ fears that the closer they get to the police, the more likely they are to be harassed.
Nevertheless, the board was preparing to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (or MOU) between the district and the OPD, which would ask the OPD to provide ten specially trained cops to the district, including an officer posted at each of the district’s six high schools. The memorandum had been roundly criticized for giving overly broad powers to the OPD; critics don’t like the fact that it would require school staff to report suspicious incidents to the police, set up rooms on each campus where officers can conduct interviews, allow officers to stop, interrogate, or arrest students without the approval of school administrators, and require the officers to teach classes on “law enforcement in society.”
What followed that night at the OUSD school board meeting was a roughly five-hour shouting match, the finer points of which you could break down thusly: students say they cannot feel safe with cops on campus, adults say they cannot feel safe without them. “We believe the police have no business in an educational institution,” Jamil Posey, a Castlemont junior and YACIN member, told the board. “The police aren’t on campus to keep us safe, but to make us feel as though we are controlled and incarcerated in the one place where we are supposed to feel more safe than anyplace.” Students held up butcher paper posters and quoted statistics from surveys they’d done showing that students feel uncomfortable around the police. But facing the students on the other side of the aisle were members of the Oakland Coalition of Congregations, who argued that the night’s protesters were not representative of Oakland schoolchildren, fifty percent of whom, they said, reported feeling unsafe being at school at all.
On the board itself, the arguments for the proposal have mostly been couched in terms of saving money. School board member Dan Siegel, one of the strongest proponents of the idea, argues that the agreement would only make superficial changes to the way campus security is handled and yet allow the district to put aside funds for the kinds of preventive services the teens are demanding. “The only change is, it’s the city cops rather than school district cops, which means the school district can save about $2 million a year which we then put into counseling, conflict resolution programs, psychological services, and parent and grandparent support,” he says. “It doesn’t mean more police on campus or that the police have any greater rights than they do now.”
At the meeting, Siegel hammered home the idea that the officers the district employs now are “real cops” –they carry guns, mace, and billy clubs, and most of them have been trained by the OPD–and yet the students have accepted their presence. Moreover, says Siegel, when the school district employed the OPD between 1990 and 1999, no police violence surfaced. “If people want to go back and look at the records, we did not have problems with the Oakland police … brutalizing our young people. Nada. There is not any record of such problems,” he told a groaning crowd. “We’re not inviting the Riders onto these campuses.”
Hiring the OPD won’t be totally free–the OUSD will end up paying the city about $1.1 million the first year to support the program. But that’s a savings of $1 million, and Oakland police chief Richard Word adds that the OPD force can provide services the district can’t–jail, dispatch and follow-up investigative services, and officer training. Plus, Word says, the agreement will allow his force to link school security to the citywide policing program, finally resolving jurisdictional border squabbles and ensuring continuous coverage. “When you have two separate forces, you don’t have that single chain of command,” says Word.
While just about everyone likes the idea of saving the district a few bucks, not everyone is convinced that hiring the OPD is the right way to do it. “They’re saying this is a cost-saving measure, and it’s true the district is cash-strapped,” says Kim Miyoshi, executive director of the advocacy group Kids First. But, she adds, “This is expensive–it’s a million dollars for ten cops. That’s a lot of money. We’re trying to push the school board and City Council that you have a third choice and that’s that you don’t place cops on campus during school hours.”
Having no cops at all was a popular idea among protesters at the OUSD meeting; some want to see parents and community volunteers shoulder part of the security work, others want cops on the campus only in emergencies; a few youth with bullhorns demanded that the students alone should be responsible for keeping each other in check. Kids First even drafted its own safety plan, arguing that most criminal incidents on school campuses take place after hours and on the weekend (in other words, when campus cops wouldn’t be on duty anyway); that sixty percent of violence on campuses is the result of conflicts between students; and that students often know when fights are going to break out well before adults do, and so the most effective way of preventing crime is by having youth resolve it through peer mediation. Miyoshi cites a letter sent out by OUSD superintendent Dennis Chaconas’ office this spring, stating that “the vast majority of incidents requiring police action have little or nothing to do with students or even the day-to-day operations of the sites. … Police officers are therefore most useful when they are part of the school site’s intervention and prevention strategy.”
School board member Gregory Hodge also came up with his own proposal, stressing that individual site-safety plans should be drawn up by local campus communities, which could then decide whether or not they want an officer on campus. But as the evening dragged on, Hodge’s proposal was scrapped in favor of the one supported by Siegel, which left the proposed agreement virtually unchanged except for the specification that the district’s financial savings must go to preventive programs. The motion passed six to four, with directors Wilda White, Gregory Hodge, Harold Pendergrass, and Paul Cobb voting against it–but by that time, the students had gone home. It was, after all, a school night.
Was the debate over? Not at all. Last week, the proposal reached the Oakland City Council for final approval. The same crowd showed up (this time, the students had rebus-like posters reading “If U vote 4 the MOU, we will not vote 4 U”), and the same points were kicked around. This time, however, the proposed agreement had more momentum going–if the school board had finally offered up a policing plan it liked, why argue? After all, school safety is an old source of discord that many people would like to finally put to rest. “I believe that this is the sixth time we’re facing this issue,” sighed District 1 Councilmember Dick Spees. “Finally we have a proposal on the table that has passed the school board–and I’m ready to vote for it and get it done.” Only District 3 Representative Nancy Nadel visibly balked at the plan, and announced an alternative similar to Hodge’s proposal: that the city focus on individual school-site safety plans before it tried posting officers anywhere. “Until we have the community of each school–made up of students, parents, police, the principal, and neighbors–decide what is needed for safety in that school, we cannot fund something that will really provide safety,” she argued. “We’re forcing our view of what ‘safety’ is on them.”
Unfortunately, the vote on the policing plan had been scheduled to come only after the council was supposed to approve the 2001-2003 budget, which made for a long and cranky evening out in the gallery. Tempers ran high, and toward the end of the evening, as the youth occasionally burst into chants and rhythmic clapping, or tried to shout down those at the podium, Council President Ignacio De La Fuente threatened to vacate the chambers.
The meeting slowly lurched toward a vote (the students had long gone home, leaving a snail trail of gold-foil stickers along the walls) despite a frustrating moment when the council almost got hung up on an eleventh-hour technicality: was the Memorandum of Understanding legal at all? Representatives from the California School Employees Association (CSEA), who were among the last at the mike, argued that the agreement would displace the fourteen officers the district already employs as well as break their contract that is supposed to extend through 2003. They asked that the council not be party to union-busting, and instead table the vote until the city’s legal staff could investigate further. District 7 Councilmember Larry Reid seemed the most alarmed, and even threatened to walk out when De La Fuente tried to rush the CSEA rep from the microphone as soon as the two-minute buzzer went off. After a good deal of concerned paper-shuffling from up on the dais, Barbara Parker from the Oakland city attorney’s office announced that since the contract was between the school district and the officers, the city had no liability. The vote was finally taken: seven to one in favor, with only Nadel voting nay.
Even now that the deal is sealed, implementing it still leaves a snarl of complications, not the least of which is the labor question. CSEA labor relations attorney Jack Ford frequently cites a letter written to him by Luis Silva, vice president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, saying that the police union unanimously supports the CSEA’s demand that the district honor their existing contract, and that the OPOA would never “encourage the violation of a labor agreement” held by another union. Does that mean, Ford asks, that OPD officers will refuse to take the job if hired on as campus security? In the meantime, the CSEA has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employees’ Relations Board saying that the district–knowing that it would soon be considering a switch to OPD cops–engaged in bad-faith bargaining when it signed its officers’ contract.
Others are concerned about the punitive effects the agreement could have on the students, especially in an era when the Three Strikes law and Prop. 21 have made it easier for teenagers to develop a police record at a very young age. “[This] will result in abuses, institutional lethargy, and ineffectiveness,” says Dan Macallair, associate director the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “Once you put police in the schools, there’s a natural tendency among teachers and administrators to rely on the police to solve what may be fairly complicated–or routine–conflicts among adolescents, and it’s an easy way for the school bureaucracies to abdicate what should be their natural responsibilities. Consequently you start developing this law enforcement mentality where it becomes the appropriate response for a wide range of behaviors that previously would have been considered normal adolescent behavior. Face it, kids poke and prod each other all the time; there’s no rhyme or reason for it. You don’t want to justify it, but you don’t want to criminalize it.” Worse, he says, once a student has had contact with the police, it’s hard for him to shake the system. “Once you have a police record, the next time it’s going to make it more likely that that kid is going to be processed,” says Macallair. “It’s going to accelerate their absorption into the juvenile justice system.”
For his part, Chief Word is doing his best to assuage fears by promising that the new OPD cops on campus will be handpicked and well-trained to deal with kids. “I want the officers to work with the students, to be a part of the campus, and resolve problems at the lowest possible level,” says Word. “We want to have officers out there who clearly have a sensitivity to youth. I have some officers who have been schoolteachers who might be interested in going back, and I think that would be great. The last thing I want is somebody who doesn’t want to be there. I want somebody who has a problem-solving mindset and is diplomatic–they’re not going to chase a kid through the school grounds for smoking a joint in the yard, or if they need to take a kid out of class they can do it without being disruptive.”
And like everyone else, Word points out that policing is only part of an overall safety program; Gregory Hodge, who has not given up on his idea about drawing the community into site-based safety planning as much as possible, says the district still has to overcome the distrust between students and police before the new policing program can work. “To bridge that gap requires a lot of hard, unpleasant, drawn-out conversations at the neighborhood level,” he says. For anyone who’s been at a recent meeting when the MOU was on the table, that should be nothing new.