Oakland school district defends police violence against protesters at board meeting

The Oakland Unified School District defended itself against accusations that police officers behaved violently toward protesters at a Board of Education meeting on Wednesday evening, when six people were arrested, including one who was taken to a hospital and left using crutches.

Video from the meeting showed police officers striking the protesting parents with batons as they approached a metal barricade. 

The protests were the latest in a series of demonstrations against school closures and the proliferation of charter schools. Since the school board voted to close Kaiser Elementary School on Sept. 11, demonstrators have disrupted three board meetings as well as a joint school board and Oakland City Council meeting on Monday. 

The previous protests did not lead to tense clashes with police as they did on Wednesday.

Saru Jayaraman, whose two children are students at Kaiser and were with her that evening, said that police pulled her arms behind her back and used a pain compliance hold on her shoulder. She said the officers then pushed her to the ground, banging her knee on the floor. 

She said the officers then picked her up and carried her out of the building, where she was taken to a hospital by ambulance.

Jayaraman said on Thursday that she was still bruised and is using crutches and a knee immobilizer. She said the swelling in her knee had increased overnight, so she had returned to the hospital where doctors thought she possibly had suffered a torn ligament.

"I am a tiny person who does not require four police officers to hold me to the ground and carry me out," she said. "It doesn't take a lot of force to hurt me, which is what happened."

School district police Chief Jeff Godown said at a news conference on Thursday that he was still reviewing video of the incident but denied that 
officers used force on Jayaraman.

"We have tape of her being arrested, we don't see any use of force by any of the officers, we're still trying to track down how she was 
injured," he said.

Godown defended the use of batons on protesters in general.

"Officers were using enough force to keep that crowd from pushing forward," Godown said. "The officers were using enough force to keep those 
protesters off that stage."

Godown said that officers were injured during the incident as well. One officer was hit, another was elbowed, and two security guards said they were injured but he did not know the severity. 

He said that he had not determined who may have hit the officers and so far have not pursued any charges of assault or battery on an officer. 

But Jayaraman and other parents who were at the meeting said that police were the aggressors and struck parents with batons unprovoked, including a first grade teacher. While the parents intended to engage in civil disobedience, they were not violent, she said.

"Yes we were trying to disrupt the meeting," Jayaraman said. "We're parents with little children who were with us, we're not trying to fight anyone, we're trying to be heard."

The teachers' union condemned the police and district for the violence.

"Last night, OUSD police pushed, choked and clubbed peaceful elementary school parents and educators who were protesting school closures," 
Oakland Education Association Vice President Chaz Garcia said in a statement. "We hold the OUSD Board of Directors and Superintendent Johnson-Trammell 
responsible for setting the stage for this violence by erecting barricades, and for the actions of their police force."

The parents are angry with the school district's plan to consolidate schools, closing them and merging with other schools. The school board has identified as many as 24 schools it could close and the district says there is 11,000 empty seats districtwide as enrollment has decreased in recent years, which leads to a reduction in state funding.

In January, the district voted to close Roots International Academy and in September it voted to close Kaiser. 

The protesters have argued that the closures are unnecessary and have raised questions about the large number of charter schools in the 
district. Twenty-seven percent of district students attend 45 charter schools, the highest proportion of any large district in the state.

Jayaraman said that the parents have several specific demands for the district. 

They are seeking a moratorium on school closures until after the 2020 election, when the state Constitution may be amended to overturn restrictions on property taxes for corporations, raising new revenue for education. 

They are also questioning why the county has allocated millions of dollars to replace Camp Sweeney, the juvenile detention center in Castro Valley, and they are seeking more financial oversight as the district has had a history of fiscal mismanagement.

District spokesperson John Sasaki said that while the district planned to reach out to the parents, it would not commit to any of their demands.

"We'll have to discuss all those," he said.

Schools Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell implied that a moratorium on school closures couldn't happen given the current fiscal situation as it could not count on potential revenue that may not come through.

"We hope desperately that we're able to get more funding from the state but we have to have plans on what we know in terms of what we have funding for now," she said. 

Meanwhile, police are gearing up for more protests at future board meetings. Godown said that he had a plan for the next meeting, but declined 
to describe it.

"My biggest issue is what's going to happen at the next meeting," Godown said. "We do not want to be the wedge between the school board and these protesters."

WATCH: Video from Oakland school board meeting shows violent clash between protesters and police