photo courtesy of the Black Organizing Project
As Oakland High School student Francisco Martinez wheeled up to the podium at last week’s board of education meeting to tell how he had been pushed out of his wheelchair at school by an Oakland School Police Department officer, the need to rein in police activity at school sites was clear.
“I was beaten and thrown out of my chair,” Martinez said,
The officer had handcuffed the paraplegic student after a scuffle with him about getting to class, and then slapped him and pushed him out of his chair onto the floor — all of which was caught on surveillance video. That officer was immediately fired and arrested on charges of child abuse as a result. But it underscored why the role of school police – and city police – within the Oakland Unified School District, has been a concern of parents, student and most particularly the Black Organizing Project for years.
The BOP has been asking the district to rein in school police and set policies on the role and accepted practices of police and security officers on campus. Too often, incidents of defiant conversation between students and security officers have escalated into physical confrontations and students getting booked. Children as young as 9 years old have endured police interrogations.
So it was a major victory, BOP members said, when the school board passed two measures last week defining what police could and could not do on campus, limiting their ability to question students during school time and providing students the right to have a parent or guardian present during any police questioning.
“This is a big victory,” said Michael Ford, whose step-daughter and niece were once pulled out of a classroom to be questioned by police. “We are not against law enforcement on campus, we want to work with them and protect the kids. That is their purpose, to create a safe learning environment.”
The board voted unanimously to forbid police to conduct interrogations of students during school hours and in a second measure again voted unanimously to require school officials to tell students of their right to have a parent or guardian present and to notify parents if police intend to question their student. Both measures had exceptions for extenuating circumstances, such as if violence occurred on campus or if questioning is needed because the student is believed to be a victim of child abuse.
“We need to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline” that is fostered by a heavy police presence in school, said Misha Cornelius, Communications and Operations Coordinator at the Black Organizing Project. Having a run-in with police, even once, doubles a student’s chances of dropping out, the organization says, and police contact is one of the strongest predictors of whether a student will fail to finish school or have to repeat grades. Also, subjecting young students to police questioning can leave them traumatized or shaken.
“We are students, not suspects, so we should be treated like students,” Reginae Hightower, a student at McClymonds High School, told the board. “I really don’t like the idea of an officer questioning me without my parent. What if I say the wrong thing or mess up?”
In research it conducted for a report on “The Impact of Policing on Oakland Youth,” the BOP traced a pattern of racial bias in who police interact with at schools and who gets arrested as a juvenile in Oakland. African-American students received 73 percent of the arrests or citations from school police in the last two years, even though African-Americans make up only 30 percent of the student population in OUSD. Also, the BOP’s research found that three out of four juvenile arrests by the Oakland Police Department were African-American youth, even though they make up 29 percent of the youth population. While school security guards or school police may protect students against intruders, the presence of police on campus, and particularly in hallways, sometimes creates a confrontational atmosphere, the organization found.
Last week’s vote put the finishing touches on the policy by adding the two measure forbidding the Oakland Police Department or Oakland School Police to formally question students during instructional time, and giving students the right to have a parent present when the questioning does take place.
The policy also states: