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."
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