Oakland’s black youth are arrested in school at a rate that is more than double their proportion of the school population, a community nonprofit said. Almost three-fourths of arrestees are black, although they comprise less than a third of the student body. These arrest records, even if thrown out, may shadow them all their lives, sending them down what critics call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Disproportionate rates of disciplinary action are sparking deep debate by education, law enforcement, legal and community groups struggling to provide safe, nurturing schools for students troubled by poverty and turbulence that stops short of criminalizing youthful misbehavior.
In August 2013, the non-profit Black Organizing Project (BOP) released a study, ‘From Report Card to Criminal Record: The Impact of Policing Oakland Youth’, in conjunction with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Northern California. To better understand the presence of the police force in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) schools, BOP investigated the rate of punishments among African American males in comparison to those of other races.
Through a campaign called “Bettering our School System,” they started researching the school-to-prison pipeline, a cycle in which African American youth are pushed out of class due to disciplinary issues, and subsequently have less chance of graduating, sometimes ending up in the criminal justice system.
BOP, a community-based non-profit organization that provides listening sessions, mentoring and leadership programs for African Americans in Oakland, was formed in 2009 to offer social support to the community. With a group of legal advisers, the non-profit attempts to make policy changes to create more just systems within schools and social service agencies.
The Black Organizing Project was engaged in such consultation, when a fatal shooting by an OUSD school police officer outside a high school dance brought the problem into focus. In 2011, the school police officer fired multiple times at a 20-year-old man as he sat in a car parked near Skyline High School. The victim allegedly tried to stab the officer’s partner with a screwdriver. Alameda County prosecutors cleared the officer who fired the shots of criminal wrongdoing.
Later, when the victim’s family brought charges, the officer’s partner said he had been pressured to alter his account of events by the school district – a charge the district’s spokesperson has denied, sfgate.com reported. The circumstances of the shooting, while clouded by conflicting accounts, increased public sensitivity about the police presence on school campuses.
The Black Organizing Project members said they were initially surprised to find that police officers were patrolling the schools, Misha Cornelius, BOP’s communications coordinator, said. “We surveyed the young people and the students in the community, and a lot of them said negative things about police interactions on campus: that they make the situation worse; that they assume that you did something wrong, even though you haven’t,” Cornelius said.
That study found that black youth make up only 30.5% of the school population, but account for 73% of Oakland School arrests. From 2010-2012, 85 students were arrested, and none of those were white, the study charges.
Duron Aldredge, a parent whose fifth-grade daughter attended Burckhalter Elementary School in Oakland for two years and is a member of BOP, said that he was unaware that OUSD had its own police force until he became involved in the organization. He said that although his daughter didn’t have any negative encounters with the officers, that he fears she could be funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline in the future.
Aldredge contended that the officers’ “interactions with the students have been proven to increase criminality.” Officers who are trained to deal with criminals on the street shouldn’t be dealing with children. “As a parent, I never had the opportunity to weigh in to say if I wanted police in the school district,” said Aldredge. He thinks that instead of investing in police officers, the schools should focus on restorative justice, counselors and security guards.
“I think Oakland Unified is pretty cognizant of the problem,” said Kate Weisburd, a staff attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center’s Youth Defender Project. “Most people who work at OUSD as teachers and administrators, at the end of the day, they like kids, they want to help kids.”
Troy Flint, the OUSD spokesperson, says that even prior to BOP’s findings, OUSD had been noticing the disproportionate punishment of African American youth in the schools, but finally began addressing it in 2009 when former superintendent Tony Smith came onto the school district. He requested that equity be a top goal of the district. Smith especially focused on young African American men as he noticed that they were suffering the most in terms of punishment and poor test scores.
In 2010, OUSD created the Office of African American Male Achievement to try to make systemic changes in the historical underserving of African American male youth. The office acts as a sounding board for young men and offers empowerment and engagement initiatives.
Despite the district’s attempts to address the high rate of punishment among black males, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, instituted a Voluntary Resolution Plan in 2012. The plan requires that OUSD identify ways to reduce detentions and suspensions. Initially there were just 38 schools involved in the plan, but in 2014-2015 it will be implemented in all OUSD schools.
An OUSD briefing note released in response to BOP’s report states that in the 2012-2013 school year, Oakland school police arrested 25 students, a rate that was down from 85 in the previous two school years combined. Some of these students were arrested for robbery, weapons possession, sexual battery and assault – which are zero tolerance offences. Troy Flint attributes the decrease in arrests to “an increased sensitivity to the fact that we don’t want to criminalize students.” In 2009 OUSD rejected the zero tolerance policy for all other lesser offenses.
OUSD will be making changes to the student information system so that it is easier to track a site-based discipline in the database more accurately.
Flint said that they’re also creating a district-wide student discipline handbook to create consistency and understanding of what actions will result in punishment. He found that some staff members were unsure of what qualified as punishable offences. Under the plan, OUSD must also develop a school-based discipline forum that brings staff and students together to discuss punitive practices in the school and how they can improve.
Chris Bridges of the ACLU Northern California found that due to those misunderstandings, 42 of 85 arrests made by Oakland School Police were non-sustained.
For Weisburd, this is a huge problem. The 42 students whose arrests weren’t sustained are left with an arrest record, jeopardizing their future employment prospect, she said.
Arrest records are not sealed automatically when a youth turns 18. Sealing them requires a judicial order, a deferred entry of judgment agreement.
Students who are arrested are immediately referred to Juvenile Hall Probation, even if they are not taken to Juvenile Hall. Probation officers can also decide if the arrests won’t be sustained.
Because security officers are always around, Weisburd said that students are being arrested for offenses that are not serious.
“We really see this as the criminalization of childhood poverty and instability,” Weisburd said.
For those that have their arrests sustained, breaking their probation can be for actions as common as being late to school, not getting good grades, or going out to play outside of their house.
Once youth become involved with the juvenile justice system, it is hard to get out. Recidivism rates for Alameda County are high according to a study released by the county in 2003. Nearly two-thirds of youth in Juvenile Hall had been there before.
“I think the school-to-prison pipeline is a two way street,” said Weisburd. “More often than not, every single youth in the juvenile court system is also struggling in school on some level,” she added.
Flint said that the higher rate of arrests among black males is a complicated matter that can’t be solely attributed to racism.
“Often kids act out because they’re struggling with the work, they feel alienated from what’s going on in the class, or they’re embarrassed that they can’t keep up.” Flint said. “This causes them to be disruptive or to lash out at other students or teachers.” He added that the lower literacy rates of young black and Latino men are “a big factor in why they’re not adjusting well to school, and more prone to the type of behavior that results in disciplinary action.”
Youth involved in the juvenile justice system “have an increased likelihood of dropping out of school and have high rates of recidivism, higher mental health needs, and lower success in employment,” the ‘From Report Card to Criminal Record’ study concluded.
The Black Organizing Project presented its findings at an OUSD Board of Education meeting in August 2013 with a series of demands. BOP requested that OUSD have a Memorandum of Understanding to make the role of police in the schools transparent to the public. The organization started a complaint policy at OUSD to give community members and students the ability to file grievances when they are dissatisfied with the treatment by police officers. Cornelius said that she wants BOP’s efforts to help create an environment in the school that is more nurturing, “where students feel understood and safe enough to open up and talk to someone about things that they’re dealing with instead of having to deal with it on their own.”
The presence of police at schools in the city is by federal mandate, according to the district spokesperson Flint. He points out that the school must straddle the requests of some parents who urge the schools to provide more police force, and others who think that there should be no law enforcement in the schools.
“There’s a lot of tension between the political ideology in Oakland and the environment that parents want for their kids,” Flint said.
Typically there are 12 to 16 Oakland School Police (OSP) officers on the force that patrol different neighborhoods throughout the city. However, when there’s a shooting near the campus, or if they hear word that there will be gang activity, then the majority of the OSP will be stationed at that campus. This is something that happens fairly regularly in high crime areas—typically in East and West Oakland. Oakland school police report to the superintendent and are paid by OUSD, not by the city. In addition, OUSD hires security officers that are trained by OSP and report to the chief, but unlike OSP they’re not law enforcement and they’re not able to arrest students.
In 2012, OUSD received a Community Oriented Policing Services grant awarded by the federal government to the middle schools to make them safer. Along with OSP and security guards, there are also 24 Oakland Police Department officers who work in groups of three: two in the surrounding neighborhood and one on the campus itself. Unlike the security guards, OSP and OPD officers are armed.
“The officers inside the schools are specifically designated to mentor students and to safeguard them to and from class,” said Flint. He added that OPD officers patrolling the schools also receive restorative justice training.
Of the 38 schools involved in the Voluntary Resolution Plan, 25 schools use restorative justice while the remaining schools have other programs such as social emotional learning. The schools involved in the plan were the ones that had the highest rate of disproportionate discipline of young African American men.
David Yusem, the Restorative Justice Program Director for OUSD, said that there have been significant positive changes since restorative justice has been implemented in schools. The program uses discussion circles to “create a space for dialogue that’s equitable,” Yusem said. Composed of staff and students, the circles encourage students to be accountable for their mistakes, as opposed to simply pushing them out of the classroom.
“Instead of focusing on the rule that was broken, they focus on the root of that behavior,” Yusem said.
In the schools that have restorative justice, there are still detentions and suspensions, but Yusem said that the punishment rate has decreased in 50-90% over the past two years.
Despite some opposition to the presence of police officers and security guards in OUSD, some students said that the security guards help make the schools a safer place.
Reginae Hightower, a ninth grade student at McClymonds High School in West Oakland, said that the four unarmed security guards at her school are friendly and make her feel “safe and secure.”
Hightower, who is also a member of BOP, said she thinks that the school would be more unmanageable without the presence of the guards. They ensure that students don’t walk off campus, get into fights in the hallways, or smoke marijuana in the bathrooms. The security guards are also constantly monitoring the hallways and ensuring that fights don’t break out.
“The teachers and the principal don’t have to worry about staying in the hallways and making sure that nothing happens because the security guards are already there,” Hightower said.
“With them, it’s a lot safer,” she added, “and we know that there’s not really anything that can go wrong.”