Going police-free is tough and ongoing, Oakland schools find

Eddie Franklin

Eddie Franklin, the culture and climate ambassador for Oakland Unified, stops a student while they are walking to class and asks how their day is going.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Across the Oakland Unified School District, the mantra for school staff is to call city police only as a last resort. If a disturbance occurs, they should rely first on in-house staff who don’t carry guns and can’t arrest anyone.

Since voting in June 2020 to disband its police department, Oakland has pursued one goal — to defuse conflict and avoid bringing in police and exposing students to the possibility of arrest. Oakland’s preference is for restorative justice, which emphasizes circle-of-trust interactions to improve how students treat one another. 

“Most of the time, it’s just having conversations with them (students),” said Eddie Franklin, a former security guard who is now part of the district’s new police-free staffing. “Let them authentically be themselves, and the goal becomes to chip away at the rough edges they might have.”

It’s a strategy credited by the district with drastically reducing the 911 calls to city police from 2,128 during the 2019-20 school year, the last year the Oakland district had its own police department, to 200 in 2022-23.  

But an EdSource analysis of data from the police shows a higher number of calls from just eight of the district’s 18 middle and high schools in half a year. The period from January to June 2023 shows those schools made 225 calls, with 105 considered “serious” for reasons including assault with a deadly weapon, suicide attempts, battery and terrorist/criminal threats.

The Oakland data was part of a statewide investigation of school policing across California. EdSource gathered nearly 46,000 police logs of calls from and about 852 schools.  The data collection was designed as a representative sample of California schools.

Police track all calls from and about eight of the district’s 18 middle and high schools, while the district’s data captures calls made to police from all 106 schools.

Misha Karigaca, Oakland Unified’s director of student support and safety, could not fully reconcile the differences between the police call logs and the district’s record of internal calls to police for the same time period.

“If a 911 call comes from a cell phone and the call doesn’t get reported to my department, we will not have information about the call which can also account for significant discrepancies,” he said.

Karigaca and Board President Sam Davis acknowledged that while staff are trained when not to call 911 and to report any calls that they make, it doesn’t always happen. “We don’t capture every call in our data as (school) sites are required to notify us if law enforcement comes on campus; but we know of times when this hasn’t always happened,” Karigaca said.

Davis said it’s also possible other staff are calling 911 for nonemergent reasons because “a lot of people reach the end of their rope for all sorts of reasons.”

The Oakland schools included in EdSource’s data are McClymonds, Castlemont, Fremont, Oakland, Skyline high schools and Montera, West Oakland and Westlake middle schools.

“We’re not in a place where we can have completely police-free schools. That is our goal and what we’re working towards, but unfortunately, there are times when we do need police support,” Karigaca said. “It was our conditioning, whatever we needed they (police) would respond. It’s almost similar to our communities and our society — there’s not many other options. Anything that revolves around safety, we’re conditioned to call police.”

In place for two school years, the new police-free plan is being evaluated locally and nationally on whether it is achieving what it set out to do.

The Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank, in describing its study, put Oakland on the “leading edge of an emerging violence-reduction practice” happening in schools across the country, according to Jesse Jannetta, a senior policy fellow at the institute. Study results are expected in August.

Not everyone supports the decision to disband the district’s police department.

Board member Clifford Thompson said it was wrong for Oakland to disband its police department. “There’s little benefit to not having police at schools,” he said. “Totally eliminating the force without having a backup for those who need that type of force, it might not have been the best thing to do.”

Getting to police-free

The Black Organizing Project, a Bay Area community organization focused on racial, social and economic justice, has been advocating for the end of the police department since 2011. It finally happened in June 2020 with a unanimous vote of the school board.

Oakland has had a fraught and violent history of racism and police abuse of Black people for nearly 80 years, which factored greatly into the final push to disband the department following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020.

The city’s Black population increased dramatically during World War II when slave descendants migrated west from Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. Police officers from those states were quickly recruited and stationed in Black neighborhoods. In 1950, a civil rights leader told the state Assembly that Black people lived “in daily and nightly terror” of Oakland police, according to a 1950 State Assembly report. The police department in Oakland Unified was born in 1957.

After more than 60 years of having an embedded police department in Oakland schools, educators, city officials and community partners are working to untangle the decades of policing culture and running its own police department.

There’s no contract or memorandum of understanding with the Oakland Police Department, but the district shares what staff are taught about when to call 911 and how to interact with police. 

Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention recently reported to a joint council-district committee on the plan’s progress. The city of Oakland invested $2.4 million in the 2022-23 school year to address violence in schools by creating a School Violence Intervention and Prevention Program and hiring life coaches, violence interrupters and gender-based violence specialists to four comprehensive high schools and three continuation high schools. 

Gender-based violence specialists are unique to Oakland, Jannetta said. The specialists have workshops about dating violence, stalking, sexual harassment, sexual assault and commercial sexual exploitation.

Through surveys, officials found these extra staffers have more relatability to students, can focus on individual needs, and alleviate some of this work from teachers.

It’s too early to evaluate whether it is working, but the district is going in a positive direction, said Jessica Black, director of administration for the Black Organizing Project.

Getting to a police-free school environment also faces challenges. City and school officials say violence especially among 14 to 18-year-olds in the city bleeds into the school district. 

During the 2022-23 school year, there were more than 600 high school suspensions and two shootings at OUSD high schools, according to the report. One of last year’s shootings was at Skyline High School, and just last month, another shooting occurred during the high school’s graduation that injured three people.

The city’s analysis of school violence puts some of the blame on the heightened crime in the city. According to the report, there’s been an increase in violence on campuses “that is related to community conflicts as well as an increase in instances of non-students showing up at school campuses with weapons to fight students.”

Despite the challenges, the school board has not considered reinstating the district’s police department, Davis confirmed. Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell declined to comment through a district spokesperson.

When to call police

One of the Black Organizing Project’s goals was to “uproot the security structure,” said Jasmine Williams, development director. With community support, the project pushed to restructure campus police, including getting rid of badges or anything that emulates the police and installing new titles, training, and redesigning the shirts they wear.

“The district is not coming up with this stuff on their own,” the project’s Jessica Black said. “We’re literally pushing the district to think differently.”

Oakland administrators can call for “nonviolent de-escalation support” from staff known as culture and climate ambassadors when there are fights, a student is causing harm to themselves or others, or unwelcome visitors are on campuses, according to the School Administrator Guidance to Police Free Response. There’s a nonemergency line administrators can call to dispose of firearms or illegal drugs, when there’s suspicion of a crime, or during lockdowns. For mental health crises, administrators also have different people to reach out to depending on the situation. 

Students can still be disciplined, including suspended, but that’s rarely the first option, Karigaca said. Most of the time, interventions take place.

“It’s offering a conduit of other opportunities, such as a restorative session, once both parties are in a place to have a restorative session,” Karigaca said. “Sometimes it’s going to take a walk or going to a different office; sometimes it’s calling parents or connecting with a community resource.”

District police-free guidelines give a variety of reasons when calling 911 is appropriate: active shooters, fire, medical emergencies, a person with a gun or explosive, bomb threats, serious injuries, hostage situations, abduction or kidnapping, violent crimes, death at a school site, emergency evacuations, or any situation posing danger to health or safety. 

Students can be arrested for some of these incidents, Karigaca said, but usually students aren’t arrested as a result of staff calling 911. There are about four to five arrests every school year, and it’s typically because police are arresting students for something they did outside of school, he said.

The district partners with organizations for alternative support, but sometimes they can’t immediately respond, Karigaca said. 

“When we call CPS (Child Protective Services) or any other mental health crisis response folks, a lot of times their staff is also under-resourced and they aren’t able to respond,” Karigaca said. “Even they will tell us, ‘Call law enforcement.’”

New titles for security guards

As Eddie Franklin walked down the hallway of Bret Harte Middle School, it was as if every student knew who he was. Most would fist pump him or shake his hand and he knew every student’s name. 

Eddie Franklin1
Eddie Franklin, the culture and climate ambassador for Oakland Unified, shakes a student’s hand while walking down the hallway.
Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Franklin has been at OUSD for seven years and used to be a security guard who worked with police and used handcuffs for detaining students. He became a culture keeper four years ago. Now he’s what’s called a culture and climate ambassador.

Franklin said he brings “an unbiased approach” to every situation even if the student is acting negatively. “Your goal is to actually make them (students) see and critically think about what’s in the best interest of both sides.”

Security guards were replaced with culture keepers and culture and climate ambassador who have leadership roles and assist culture keepers when needed, Karigaca said. The main priorities for all roles are to de-escalate violence and create positive relationships with students and staff.

The 63 culture keepers are spread around the district: up to three in middle schools; up to six in most high schools. Five elementary schools also have culture keepers. 

When Franklin was a culture keeper, he said his day-to-day work evolved into understanding the different personalities on campus to get a better understanding of student behavior.

“So you don’t overreact when they do some of the things they do,” Franklin said. “But also try to give them an idea of what they can do differently.”

As a culture and climate ambassador, Franklin is deployed to different schools when extra support is needed, Karigaca said. Most of the time, they roam around different schools building relationships.

Franklin said he oversees 13 middle schools and does check-ins with staff to talk about what kind of support they need. A big part is building trust, he said.

When Franklin goes to a school, he said, his goal is “to act like a parent, a positive parent, let them know I actually care about you and support you in whatever you do, and I’m not going to be over the top if I react to something that you did negative.”

To other districts looking at Oakland as an example, Williams, of the Black Organizing Project, said she doesn’t want the message to be “all you have to do is implement a policy.”

“It took us 10 years of fighting to get here, and we are still fighting within the district,” Williams said. “It takes community to have even this much progress.”

EdSource Reporters Thomas Peele and Andrew Reed contributed to this report.

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