School districts are joining the call for police reform, and moving fast in the month since George Floyd’s death sparked national protests. Communities from California to Maryland are taking a hard look at the role of police in schools and making changes.
In Oakland, Calif. last night, the school board voted to eliminate its police department by end of 2020. The proposal, officially titled the "George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate Oakland Schools Police Department," also promises “that the District would no longer employ law enforcement or armed security presence of any kind within District schools by reimagining how to keep District students and staff safe.”
YR Media spoke to school board representatives in three different states, California, Maryland and Washington, about how they are handling police reform in their school districts.
Oakland, CA: Roseann Torres, OUSD school board representative
YR: What kind of policing system does Oakland Unified School District currently have?
Roseann Torres: Some districts have contracts with police. They don't have what Oakland Unified has, which is a whole department of police. People are a little surprised to find out that in all the Bay Area, we're the only ones with a police department, not a contract with police. That's a very big distinction.
YR: Why did you feel it was important to show your support for the disbandment of the police department?
RT: A study was conducted about young people who have contact with police in their youth. Kids of color are more likely to have contact with police who are going to stop and ask, ‘What are you doing? Why are you standing around?’ and so on. And then [those kids are] going to have continual contact with police. That constant ongoing contact with police can then turn to arrests and incarceration from juvenile hall to adult prisons. [The George Floyd Resolution] came about from the relationship I built with [the Black Organizing Project in Oakland] and the knowledge of all their work and their struggles and their desire for someone on the [OUSD School Board] to say, "We hear you, we trust you, we like what you're doing and working on and ultimately, we’d like to help you change it."
YR: What are some alternative disciplinary actions that can be taken to ensure safety on campus?
RT: We need adults who can de-escalate. We need adults who can be trained with the restorative practice that made Oakland Unified famous in the country. We need more training and we need more people who know how to use those skills. I have a middle school I represent called Edna Brewer. They have an RJ [restorative justice] coordinator who trains students in restorative practices. Those students can intervene if they see fellow students having a problem. They can say, "Do you want to resolve this in a restorative practice way? Let's go to the office. We'll have a meeting." The child usually has problems and instability at home or has been a victim of abuse or has been neglected or is living on the street, for that matter. There is a lot more to it. People don't wake up and say, "I'm going to be a bad kid." I sure didn't.
YR: What do you see as being the ultimate end goal?
RT: I think it's really important that we just get back to educating kids. What really bothers me about what I've heard from kids that work with BOP is that they feel criminalized. We've gotten into so many other areas that are far from education. That's what makes me really happy about this resolution. I want us to do just the basics and get kids on their way to a fulfilling life.
Prince George's County, Maryland: Joshua Omolola, PGCPS school board student representative
YR: What kind of relationship do Prince George's County Public Schools currently have with the Prince George's County Police Department?
Joshua Omolola: Right now we have a contract with the Prince George's County Police Department. That means we have one school resource officer at all of our high schools and some of our middle schools. These officers are armed. The proposal that we had at our last board meeting was to look and to see if we would sever the contract with our school resource officers and divert our contract to fund other means that will help students, specifically mental health.
YR: Why focus on mental health services specifically?
JO: We don't give enough funding, in my opinion, to mental health. I know we make strides to increase it every year, but considering how much the police department received, I really think it's more important that we offer more mental health resources through funding that would have gone to [the school resource officers]. And when we talk about mental [health], we're not only talking about making sure they have the right resources, we're talking about adding counselors, the school psychiatrist to our school building, making sure we have somebody on-site you can talk to if need be. These are the people that they can confide in and will make them feel safe at school.
YR: Have you gotten any pushback on ending your contract with police?
JO: [Dissolving the contract] is a concern for everybody because somebody [could] say, "Oh, you know, we have mental health resources but our school got shot up." [But recent incidents with police] have really just been a sparking point for a lot of members in the community to really just get something done now. No community wants to be a victim. No community wants to be a Minneapolis or an Atlanta. We're learning from what's happening and we're trying to adjust and be better as a people and as a community.
YR: What role does the community play in making sure these changes are made?
JO: Community input is very important on issues like this, because if the community wants it and the board members or the elected officials don't adhere to what the community wants ... that's why we have an election term. So that you can vote them out of office and get some people in it that really do support your cause. Now is the time to really get engaged in your community. Make sure that you know where your political officials stand and if they don't stand where you are, there's a term limit for a reason.
Edmonds, Washington: Carin Chase, ESD school board representative
YR: Can you describe Edmunds School District’s current relationship with the police?
Carin Chase: In 2018 we started a pilot project to reintroduce the S.R.O (School Resource Officer) into the school district. In the budget cuts, in 2008 or so, the SRO was removed in all but one of the schools. And so we hadn't had SROs for quite a while. Then the administration decided that, I think it was prompted by all the school shootings, to reintroduce the program. And so the two of the agreements were up for renewal. It just happens that now is the time that we're taking a look at it.
YR: Why did you feel it was important to think critically about renewing the contract?
CC: The issue of police in our public schools is not new, but what is new is that we are in the midst of this statewide and worldwide focus on racial justice and the racism embedded in the system. As we have clearly seen the excessive use of police force and the patterns of racially-biased policing. These issues have been brought up to us by our community. We are hearing that while having an armed officer may make some students feel safe, it definitely did not for many of our students of color. You can't say that every single student of color felt uncomfortable, but we do know that it was causing harm and stress to many of our students to have armed officers on campus.
YR: Do you worry removing SROs from campuses will make them less safe in the event of a school shooting?
CC: No, I don't. You know, we saw what happened with the SROs in Florida. And so there hasn't really been anything that's come out to show that it's going to decrease the school shootings. I think that what will [decrease the number of shootings] is having a large community that's looking out for the safety of each other. If someone is disturbed and has demonstrated some behaviors that are concerning, it may be that we can get them some help before things escalate.
YR: What are some potential positive outcomes of the dissolution of this contract?
CC: I think that this is a unique opportunity for us to take a look at what makes a safe community and think about different kinds of partnerships. Do we want to partner with, for instance, our health district to see how we might be able to have some social services with interventions that are more closely aligned with counseling services? This is a great opportunity. We've got a time that we can reset and really take a deeper dive into what makes a safe community for all of our students.