Some Oakland parents question need for school police

Police take an oath to protect and serve. But some parents and local residents say they don’t feel any safer having cops in schools.

Since the lethal shooting of 20-year-old Raheim Brown in January by an on-duty Oakland Unified School District police sergeant, some community activists and residents have questioned the role of the police on school grounds. Some parents are even calling for the dismantling of the district’s school police force.

“I don’t want police in my son’s school,” said Oakland resident Sheri Morer, during a recent board meeting. And she’s not alone.

College student Jabari Shaw, who has four children, including three boys who attend Oakland public schools, fears his children are at higher risk of being harassed by school police for fitting a specific profile: male, low-income, energetic and African American.

“Look at them, they fit the description,” said Shaw recently at the Oakland Unified School District building. “They have dreadlocks and they’re black. So, they’ll be targets eventually if we don’t get the police out of our schools.”

But Troy Flint, spokesman for the school district, said police are there to protect students, teachers and other school personnel from crime that happens on campus and the surrounding areas. And at a time when Oakland Police Department has downsized due to budget cuts, having school police on school grounds is even more critical.

A 2009 National Crime and Delinquency Council report showed that only about 40 percent of students in Oakland public schools reported feeling safe at school.

“The officers are assigned to specific schools and worry about those schools rather than the entire neighborhood,” he said. “They provide a greater level of security.”

In addition, the district has a number of intervention programs to help students resolve conflicts.

“I can guarantee you that we have more behavioral mediation programs” than other school districts, Flint said.

It has been a particularly tumultuous time for the Oakland school district’s police force.

Brown’s family and others had called for an independent investigation of the shooting. Instead the school district had an internal investigation, which concluded that no district policies, practices or regulations were violated. Later in August, then-school police chief Peter Sarna retired at 41 amid accusations that he made racial slurs against an African-American colleague. The district tapped into Sgt. Barhin Bhatt, the highest-ranking member of the school police department and the officer who shot Brown, to lead the 16-member police force.

“They sent a message that a black life doesn’t count. That you can do anything and nobody will say anything about it,” said Philip Byers, a community organizer with the Black Organizing Project, a program of the Center for Third World Organizing. “There’s no caring, no compassion for what happened to Raheim Brown and his mother. It was basically a slap in the face.”

“There’s a lack of transparency around the role of the police engagement with students,” said Jackie Byers, director of the Black Organizing Project. “A real kind of block around parents and students being able to find out how accountability happens even within the district and the school board.”

School police programs started in the United States in the mid-1950s, but didn’t gain prominence until the 1990s in response to highly publicized school shootings, such as those in Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky and Columbine High School in Colorado. Now, approximately 35 percent of elementary, middle and high schools in the country have school police officers.

The Oakland school district created a security division in 1957 made up of two officers to protect school property. The officers patrolled the buildings and responded to burglary alarms. The division began to grow and officers began to take more law enforcement responsibilities in the two decades following. In 1983, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, the agency that trains law enforcement officers from school police to sheriff’s department, certified the division as a full-service police department.

Richard Reed, assistant director of administration at POST, said school police officers must have additional training to work with students in addition to basic training. All officers are required to have 24 hours of continuous training every two years, he said.

Reed said his agency conducts regular audits to ensure departments are meeting the standards. A 2009 POST audit showed that Oakland school police department was in good standing. A second audit is scheduled for 2012.

Little research has been done on the effectiveness of school resource officers, or school police, in providing a safe learning environment for students and educators. At least one researcher has identified a “school-to-prison pipeline” as a result of having police officers in schools, according to the article, “Police at School: A Brief History and Current Status of School Resource Officers.”

During a 2005 labor dispute with school police, the school district told the state’s Public Employment Relations Board that in the “few years of having an independent police force actually reduced and worsened services to school sites and reduced the safety of the students in general.”

Aside from 16 sworn officers, the district counts 79 security officers that report to the police chief, Flint said. Officers are assigned to specific schools and can respond quickly if there needs to be, for instance, a lockdown because of a problem happening in the school or vicinity.

“It’s important for Oakland schools to supplement crime prevention with our own special dedicated officers,” he said. “That’s particularly true since we need rapid and immediate response.”

Some are skeptical.

“Police will most likely arrest the students and that puts them in the system. There’s a chain reaction,” said Leslie Phillips, a long-time Oakland resident. “The high school students don’t feel comfortable having police on campus.”

Phillips said having police in schools makes students feel unsafe, and in certain situations, it becomes the first contact students have with the juvenile justice system for incidences that in the past would have merited a talk with the principal, a counselor, or a call home to parents.

The school district has had three police chiefs in two months. On Sept. 2, Lt. James Williams of the Oakland Housing Authority became third person to lead the small independent police unit.

During a special school board meeting on Sept. 7, Superintendent Tony Smith introduced Lt. Williams.

“We’re very happy to welcome him and very thankful to the Housing Authority for their partnership,” Smith said.

Jackie Byers of BOP said it’s going to take more than changing the leadership of the school police to mend the relationship with the students and parents.

“This had just come at the tail end of where there was a murder of a young black man by a high ranking police officer who was then named as the next in line,” she said. “Which tells us that as an institution the school district is not in a position to hold itself accountable in any kind of way. And it’s time for the community to play that role.”

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