The Oakland Unified School District unanimously voted on Wednesday evening to disband its own police department.
The measure passed by the school board will redirect a police budget of $2.5 million to other programs for students. Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell supported the move.
“As an educator, I know that students and staff must be safe physically and emotionally. In reflecting over the past few weeks, it has become clear to me that we must answer this call and this moment in a way that fundamentally transforms how we operate,” Johnson-Trammell told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Teachers from the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) reportedly call police officers from the district’s force around 2,000 times each year. Black and Brown students make up most of the population in OUSD schools, and policing has generally affected them at a disproportionate rate, according to the Black Organizing project. In 2018, Black students made up about a quarter of OUSD schools, but represented about three-quarters of arrests.
“What happens in terms of policing in schools is interconnected to the same issues we see in policing in our cities,” Black Organizing Project’s executive Director Jackie Byers said to HuffPost. “There is a different approach a lot of law enforcement have in dealing with Black and brown children, and even seeing them as children.”
At least 19 school districts in California, including OUSD, have their own police departments. OUSD has more than 120 officers in its department, as well as other personnel that oversees 35,000 students in total.
Parents of Black students in OUSD schools have questioned for decades whether the district should have its own police force at all, citing racial disparities in policing as well as noting that such practices do little to address behavioral issues where they do exist.
The establishment of the police force in the 1950s was motivated by “racial anxieties about the city’s rapidly changing demographics,” according to Rutgers University historian Donna Murch.
Recent controversies involving the district’s police force have led to renewed calls for it being disbanded. In 2016, a video recording of a 15-year-old special education Latino student being choked and dragged in one of the schools by an officer led to a lawsuit against OUSD, for example.
Disproportionate discipline against Black and Brown students, while demonstrable in Oakland, is seen across the country as well. While Black children make up 16 percent of the national population of students, they represent 31 percent of all arrests in schools in the U.S.
Studies have demonstrated disciplinary action in schools toward Black students is more severe than it is toward their white counterparts. A study from the University of California, Berkeley, that was published in 2019 examined racial biases of administrators, asking them what kind of punishments they might dole out to students in hypothetical situations.
Students who were assumed to be Black based on their names alone received disciplinary punishments for first-time offenses that were 20 percent more severe than those with names commonly associated with white people. For hypothetical second offenses, Black students received more severe punishments at a rate 29 percent higher than white students.
Police presence in schools has been detrimental to the mental well-being of many Black students. A survey of students in New Orleans, for example, found that, while 69 percent of white students felt comfortable with police patrolling their hallways, only 40 percent of Black students felt similarly.