Oakland High Student Council Schools the Cops

Peter Nicks’ new documentary, ‘Homeroom,’ tracks the defunding of the Oakland Unified School District Police Department.

High school seniors across the nation missed out on many rites of passage last year as a result of the pandemic; Oakland High School’s graduating class of 2020 was no different.

Sheltering-in-place and attending classes remotely during the final three months of the school year, they were unable to perform in school plays, attend prom, or turn their tassels together at an in-person graduation.   

But as Peter Nicks’ new film, Homeroom, demonstrates, the outgoing class also achieved a huge win.

In a year that saw much of the country sharply divided on issues of politics, race, and health mandates, these students were able to unite against police brutality and dismantle the Oakland Unified School District Police Department (OUSDPD). 

“It was sad to see what they lost, but also powerful to see them find their voices in the wake of this loss,” says Nicks, who followed the students’ tribulations and triumphs for the third in his trilogy of Oakland-based documentaries. 

Long obsessed with the complex relationship between communities and the institutions that are meant to support them, the award-winning Bay Area-based director-producer tackled the bureaucracy of the healthcare system in 2012’s The Waiting Room and police reform in 2017’s The Force, before turning his attention to the inequity of Oakland’s public school system in Homeroom.

He begins the film on the first day of what seems like just another ordinary school year. Nicks began shooting before the onset of the pandemic, and there are plenty of familiar scenes of students falling asleep at their desks or on their phones during class while others are anxious about their GPAs, SAT scores, and college applications.

Nicks also shines a light on issues that are more prevalent among Oakland’s students of color, such as hunger, housing instability, and a fear of law enforcement — all of which can impede their ability to focus on their education. 

It’s the gloomy prospect of yet another year of police officers haunting school hallways — intimidating students who are already accustomed to harassment from law enforcement or who have seen family members unjustly arrested — that drives a group of students and parents to demand an end to the OUSDPD. 

Denilson Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl, both of whom hold seats on the All City Council Student Union, work as liaisons between the 36,000 students in their district and the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education Directors, stand at the forefront of this movement. 

Oakland is the only school district in Alameda County with its own police force, and opponents believe the $6 million a year set aside for in-house law enforcement would be better spent on programs to further students’ prospects, such as ESL classes, career counseling, and increased mental health, nutrition, and wellness support. 

After two meetings with the school board, where the students’ proposal to rid the district of the OUSDPD is denied, Garibo and Smith-Dahl are disappointed but not deterred. When the pandemic hits, the All City Council Student Union remains steadfast in its mission.

“We’re working hard nonstop,” Garibo says to his schoolmates in a virtual meeting. “It says a lot that we’re doing this even through this time.”

The same couldn’t be said for Nicks’ production, which was temporarily suspended because of public health orders prohibiting large indoor gatherings.

“Like everyone, we were stopped in our tracks after the shutdown,” the filmmaker says. “This impacted us in a variety of ways, psychologically and also practically speaking. We had a film to make and there was that anxiety over whether we would be able to finish. But we were also concerned about our own health and that of our loved ones. It was a strange place to be.”

But once students went outside to take part in Defund the Police marches and rallies across the city — in response to the Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd killings — Nicks’ team was once again able to join them and document their struggle.

“Ultimately, life dictated our path,” the director says. “When the street protests emerged after the killings of George Floyd and others, our cameras naturally found their way among masses of masked youth yelling out, ‘I can’t breathe.’” 

Nicks’ crew was also there with Garibo on June 24, 2020, when the historic George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department was unanimously passed by the Oakland school board.

With this win, other school programs will now have the necessary resources with which to thrive. But the students gained something else that day that is equally valuable. 

“This victory instills in the students a powerful narrative that they can, in fact, effect change,” says Nicks.

The director says he set Homeroom at Oakland High School for two reasons. First, it felt familiar to him, as it was just down the street from Highland Hospital, where he shot The Waiting Room. Second, the student body was made up of mostly Black, Asian American, and Latinx students, and refugees from all over the world. 

Growing up on ’80s high school films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, Nicks, who’s of mixed race, never saw himself represented in big-screen narratives of suburban youth.

That’s why, he said, in Homeroom he wanted to highlight the unique struggles and achievements faced by high schoolers of color, like his late daughter, Karina Sivilay Nicks, a social justice warrior who died of a drug overdose in September 2019 — just a month into filming.

Although the movie was produced at a time of tremendous loss for Nicks, it still manages to be the most optimistic film of his trilogy. 

“Seeing how the students navigated and emerged from unprecedented global instability was a remarkable thing to witness and gives me so much hope for our future,” Nicks explains. “…These have been traumatic times, and our young generation has been through so much. But they are lifting each other as best they can, challenging the status quo, and showing us why their voice matters so much in these unprecedented times. I can’t wait to see what they do next.”

Homeroom opens today at the AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco and Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland. It begins streaming on Hulu the same day.

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