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Tireless Community Organizing by Black Parents Removed Cops From Oakland Schools

Children thrive when we center violence prevention and co-create learning environments that welcome the whole person.

Students, teachers and parents walked out of Westlake Middle School and marched to Oakland Unified School District offices to protest its consideration for closure by the district in Oakland, California, on February 1, 2022.

Four years ago, as a result of more than a decade of organizing led by the Black Organizing Project (BOP), a group of students, parents, teachers, and allies united to achieve a historic win in Oakland, California, resulting in the removal of police officers from the Oakland Unified School District. The campaign succeeded after years of Black students being treated unjustly. It was a community-driven solution to redefine school safety — and today we’re starting to see signs of real progress.

The school district’s passage of the George Floyd Resolution for Police-Free Schools (GFR) didn’t come easy. Parents and teachers demanded a plan to eliminate officer positions in the schools at a board of education meeting in March 2020, but the fundamentals of the resolution date back to BOP’s People’s Plan for Police-Free Schools from 2019. At that March meeting, a divided board voted down the resolution. George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis two months later prompted BOP to mobilize community partners during a week of action, lifting up the voices of Black and Brown youth across Oakland. As a result, the OUSD school board unanimously voted to eliminate police from all Oakland schools, becoming the first in the nation to do so.

Under the GFR, the school district eliminated police officers in Oakland schools, while committing a one-time fund of $1.9 million from the previous school police budget in critical resources. This was in addition to the more than $5 million over three years in funding for services from the Department of Violence Prevention — including expanded counseling, violence-prevention services, and academic and mental health support — to help more Black and Brown students feel safe and thrive.

The resolution was a critical win against systemic racism, over-policing, and the criminalization of Black and Brown youth at a time when people across the country were rising up for justice. In the years leading up to the resolution’s passage, Black students in Oakland public schools were 76% of those arrested by school police but only 26% of all local students.

Today, the new policy is starting to reverse this racist trend with a 10% reduction in suspensions for physical violence across Oakland’s public high schools and a substantial decline in police calls since in-person teaching resumed post pandemic. The 2021 OUSD board report compared police calls before and after the new policy and found that “police calls to campus have dropped dramatically since the George Floyd Resolution, with 134 calls to campus between August 2021 and April 2022, compared with 1,814 during the same timeframe from 2019-20.”

The report also found that “with no police presence on campuses teachers, admin, and students have been able to exercise healthy alternatives to de-escalate situations with the use of the police-free guidance, problem solve conflict, and start to build meaningful relationships with each other.”

The GFR also led to School Safety Officers being renamed “Culture Keepers” and “Culture and Climate Ambassadors.” As per the OUSD board report, “These positions no longer carry handcuffs or wear police symbolism or logos and instead are tasked with “promoting school site safety through relationship building, de-escalation techniques, and the use of trauma-informed restorative practices.”

However, while this is a victory, data from the California Department of Education, analyzed by Organizing Roots and DSC California shows that while suspension rates for all races are higher than pre-pandemic levels, Black, Native, and Pacific Islander students remain disproportionately impacted. The district clearly needs to do more work to address the underlying biases and racism in our schools that are causing disproportionate disciplinary action.

Oakland set out to bring people together to imagine a better path to safety, security, and Black liberation. It chose a path that has started to reimagine the purpose of schools: supporting all students to learn, thrive, and be safe. The Oakland model provides lessons for school districts across the country to look for ways to advance racial equity and support all young people to succeed.

In cities across the nation, including Chicago, Madison, Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix, grassroots movements have been exploring or moving forward with similar plans to get police out of schools. This growing movement reflects an understanding that real safety — for students, teachers, and staff — doesn’t come from school police. It comes from having access to support services, trusted adults, and other resources that help all students.

Research has proven what we know from lived experience — that students of color feel safer and are more likely to succeed academically and graduate when schools remove police. And police presence in schools has done little to actually protect students, teachers, and staff from shootings and other threats of external violence. In fact, having police in schools increases violence and crime by criminalizing school-aged children, forcing them out of the school system, and fueling the school-to-prison pipeline.

The George Floyd Resolution is a manifestation of what the community has always known: We must invest in spaces of creativity, joy, and connection for young people. Our children thrive when we center violence prevention and mental health support, and work alongside the community to co-create learning environments that welcome the whole person.

Another important lesson from the fight to win real safety in Oakland schools is that community-led change delivers results. Oakland residents first came together to transform local systems that harm Black youth and families in 2011, soon after the killing of 20-year-old Raheim Brown by OUSD police. Dating back to the 1940s and 1950s, the migration of Southern Black families to Oakland spurred police and schools to join forces in targeting Black youth — Brown’s killing mobilized the community to stand up and say “Enough.” It was in the wake of that tragic event that BOP members created the B.O.S.S. Campaign (Bettering Our School System) to focus on the decriminalization of Black youth and removal of all policing in schools.

This history is critical because the George Floyd resolution did not come about because elected officials agreed to far-reaching reforms. It was the result of a movement led by those most impacted for justice based on years of organizing and community leadership. Parents, students, and community members worked together to develop a school safety plan that prioritized the needs of Black students and their families. They showed up at hearings and community events, wrote letters of support, and flooded their social media channels with information and calls to action.

Our progress in Oakland has shown us what works to transform local systems that punish Black youth and communities of color: Put young people, parents, and community members at the center of the work. Be bold and keep fighting for transformational change and not just incremental, feel-good actions. And claim every single community win. That is what will continue to inspire those who will come after us. That is what will ignite everyday, regular people to realize that we ourselves have the power to shift, change, and transform.

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