OUSD board members listen to speakers at this week's meeting. L-R: Vice President Nina Senn, President James Harris, Superintendent Antwan Wilson, and Student Director Darius Aikens. Photo by Cassady Rosenblum.

OUSD board addresses student protests, safety issues

on September 30, 2016

Student safety and the role of the Oakland School Police Department were at the forefront of Wednesday’s Oakland Unified School Board meeting, as board members, parents and OSPD Chief Jeff Godown spoke emotionally of recent events which they say have damaged the security and wellbeing of Oakland’s young people.

School board president James Harris gave passionate testimony during his report, which focused on last week’s national anthem protests by the OUSD school honor band and Castlemont High School football team. Before a high school game, the team lay down and held their hands in the air as the anthem was being played; meanwhile, the band knelt during the anthem at an A’s game.

Harris read aloud parts of a letter he received from an Oakland veteran, which described the protesting students as “uneducated,” and their behavior as “obviously racist.”

Harris defended the student’s actions, describing his protest walk to city hall in the wake of the 1991 beating of Rodney King. Today, he asserted, the experience of African American students has changed—for the worse. “This is not beating any more. There is a murder going on,” he said. He implored teachers and educators to support students and “get involved.”

Following the president’s report, Superintendent Antwan Wilson highlighted the need for Oakland schools to create environments where children can process “all that goes on in our city and all that happens in the world,” referring to recent shootings of unarmed people of color by police.

Godown, who was scheduled to give a bi-yearly report to the board, stressed the department’s commitment to an equitable, fair, and student-focused response to security on Oakland campuses. “I came here with the sole purpose to support the students and keep the students safe,” he said, noting the recent addition of the motto “students first” to all OSPD vehicles.

Godown’s report disclosed that campus police were called 1,410 times in a 103-day period for services at schools around the city, with the most calls coming from Oakland Technical High School. “The reality is we’re having a lot of calls every day,” he said, adding that the department is working with schools to improve procedures in order to lessen the call load.

Speaking candidly at the end of the report, Godown, who is white, recounted a recent visit to an elementary school during which a third grader, on seeing the officer in uniform, put his hands on his head and dropped to his knees. He also spoke of his own fear of being robbed by two African-American men who sat next to him in a restaurant. “It weighs on me every single day,” he said of the state of race relations nationwide. “I’m pleading with you somehow to help me make that stop.”

During public comment, Mike Hutchinson, who is running for the school board seat for District 5, reminded the board that “there was a time when our schools didn’t have a police force,” and said he took offense that Godown would equate feeling scared of being robbed to feeling scared of being shot and killed by a police officer. “This is Oakland, California, home of the Panthers. Let’s get it together,” he said.

The board also heard from the parents of a student at Oakland Technical High School who has been approached by a stranger in a vehicle twice as she walked between the school’s campuses for class. “Who’s responsible for her safety and welfare when she makes that walk?” Don Taylor, the girl’s father, asked. “Somebody needs to put a stop to it.”

Yolanda Richardson, the girl’s mother, said, “She could have got snatched.” She pointed out that security is needed to protect students not just from strangers, but from fights with each other. While she praised the actions of the school’s security officer, she said the police “need to be on top of their game.”

Godown assured the board his department would be able to provide personal safety training in schools, should it be asked for.

Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge (District 3) noted the recent shootings which took place near McClymonds High School. She said that while the incidents had affected students, it was important to recognize they had not happened at the school. “I just want us to take responsibility as adults, as to how we talk about it,” she said. She added that it was important to be mindful of the work being done by schools and communities to combat this type of violence.

Additional discussion included a report on OUSD enrollment, which showed that it is 413 students lower than last year, and 872 lower than projected for this school year. Charter school attendance grew by approximately 1,000 students at mainly newly-opened or expanded sites.

Director Shanthi Gonzales (District 6) said she was alarmed that those schools with decreased enrollment were not the ones the board had expected, many of which are considered to be providing an excellent standard of education.

Interim deputy chief talent officer Tara Gard, who gave the report, suggested that schools are perceived within the context of their neighborhoods, meaning that families might have a poor perception of a good school if they notice blight in the neighborhood. Harris reiterated his plea for members of the community to call the city if they notice illegal dumping around schools.

The board also considered the effect of gentrification on the loss of students from the district. Calling the topic “fascinating” and saying that it made her emotional, Director Jody London (District 1) suggested the board may need to be “more aggressive” with the city on the need for more family housing.

A staffing update provided by Gard showed that all principal and assistant principal positions were filled at the start of the school year. However, there are now more than nine vacancies for classroom teachers across the district.

Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association, later said that while consolidation is “sometimes warranted—you’re not going to have classrooms of five students,” she questioned whether the board was in danger of creating “loaded classrooms and high needs schools.”

Student director Ty’Jeare Hunter, who was welcomed to the board Wednesday night, noted that a teacher at her school had left before the end of the first day of the new semester. This teacher would have been counted in OUSD staffing statistics, despite the fact she no longer works for the district. Hutchinson followed this by asking whether the board truly knew how many vacancies the district currently has, given that some classes may have been taken over by teachers on special assignment.

Dr. Jean Wing, executive director at Research Assessment and Data, gave a presentation on this year’s results for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test, a statewide exam for grades 3-8 and 11 which measures attainment in English language and the arts, and math. Her report showed marginal increases on scores from last year’s test. However, OUSD was below average on standards in both subjects, compared to the rest of Alameda County, and to the state as a whole.

Students receiving free or reduced lunch scored significantly lower than their peers, with 77 percent not meeting the required standard in English and 83 percent in math compared to 42 percent and 49 percent respectively.

A number of schools had very low or no increases in “standard met or exceeded” in both subjects. However, nine schools have seen a double-digit increases in English, and three school have shown the same in math. Wing noted that parents will be receiving a report on their student’s SBAC scores later this week.

The board also voted in favor of moving regular board meetings to city hall, at a cost of $117,000. An OUSD memo shows that in recommending approval of the agreement, city staff noted that “it is in the best interest of the City and the District to increase the level of cooperation and coordination to benefit the general public by maximizing the use of available resources.” The first board meeting at the new location will take place November 9.

The meeting was adjourned in memory of former OUSD Deputy Superintendent Robert Blackburn, who died September 10 at the age of 81.

The next regular board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, October 12 at 4:00 PM, at La Escuelita Learning Center.

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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