Chicago, IL

CPS Keeps Two Officers in Chicago Schools Despite Votes by the Majority of Local School Councils to Remove Them

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Having police in Chicago schools has been controversial with some saying it creates a school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects Latino and Black students.
Demonstrators approach Gage Park after marching against police violence and to demand CPS cuts ties with CPDMax Herman/Popular Resistance

Although many Chicago Local School voted to remove officers from schools, the district has decided to reject these rulings. CPD will resume sending two police officers to these schools when classes begin on August 30th. Having police in the schools has been a controversial issue in Chicago for many years.

History of Police in Chicago Schools

Placing police officers in schools was extremely uncommon in most of the first half of the 1900’s. That was altered as the Youth Division (Juvenile Division) expanded under Mayor Martin Kennelly in the 1940’s.

Almost 100 officers, mostly female, were sent to schools in an effort to stop fights. Sometimes they would be invited by principals to return on a regular basis if there was frequent violence or other types of disturbances that couldn’t be handled by regular staff. Yet even then, it wasn’t a permanent arrangement. The formal relationship between CPS and the Chicago Police Department started in 1966. At this time, off-duty police were hired to work in schools as security guards.

The Chicago Teacher’s Union was involved in these efforts from the beginning, supporting the use of police in schools, using violence against teachers as a primary reason for the move. At this time there was also a push from leaders in the civil rights movement to improve education which included desegregation and students of color demanding more of a voice in the education process. Putting police officers in schools was used as a means of quashing these voices.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s police remained in schools due to changing demographics, and the need to control drugs and gangs especially on the West and South Sides of Chicago. White parents felt threatened by the increase in black students and black parents saw police as a means of protecting their children when moving into what had been primarily white schools.

More recently, Mayor Emanuel made an agreement with the CPD to pay them directly from city money. Many have said that one of the main reasons the program continued to exist then and now is because it puts a lot of money in the pockets of off duty police officers.

The current Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot is also known for funneling money to the CPD. Of the $1.2 billion Chicago received in COVID-19 relief funds, over $280 million went to the CPD. When the CARES Act was announced, Chicago aldermen made it clear that they did not want the stimulus money to be used to increase officer pay in order to decrease violence. They felt there were better ways of accomplishing this.

Recent Developments in Placing Police in Chicago Schools

In a close vote in June of 2020, the Chicago Board of Education decided to maintain the practice of assigning nearly 200 Chicago Police to schools. This occurred after much discussion among local government officials, parents, students, teachers, with most speaking in favor of ending the Chicago Police Department program. The Board however, stated that they feared what would happen should they end this practice.

The program at that time assigned police to 72 out of 93 Chicago high schools with another 48 officers who go between various elementary schools. There was controversy over this vote since Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot has stated publicly that she wants to continue the program, and as of this vote she handpicked all school board members.

Before the meeting several dozen students gathered outside the home of School Board President Miguel del Valle to encourage him to end the program. Del Valle informed them that he intended to vote in favor of continuing the police-in-schools program. Some of those students called into the board meeting to state their case, supporting the removal of police from schools. While the meeting was being held, hundreds protested the practice in the Loop.

The move to end the program came from board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She stated that there is incontrovertible evidence that having police in schools hurts primarily Latino and Black students.

Although the motion was defeated during this session, Chicago will reduce funding for the program by over half, which will decrease the police presence in the city’s schools system next year. The budgeted amount for in-school police will be cut by $18 million dollars, decreasing it from $33 million to $15 million by removing police wages on days they don’t work in the schools as well as pay for mobile patrol officers. There are likely to be other changes to the program which will further decrease the amount of time that officers work in the school system but it will be at least a year before this occurs.

Arguments Against Having Police in the Chicago School System

According to the ACLU of Illinois, while the almost 200 police officers currently assigned to predominantly Black and Brown schools are called “School Resource Officers (SROs),” they fail to provide any kind of “resources” to the children. Instead, the ACLU claims that many of those given school duty have been shown to be abusive to the youth they are supposed to protect and that they criminalize them.

For years, Chicago students, teachers and youth advocates, have been pushing for the City to make different choices. However, the ACLU claims that leaders repeatedly choose policing instead of other potential options for Chicago’s school system.

Research has also shown that placing police in schools does create a school to prison pipeline due to more negative interactions between students and police. A report from the Justice Policy Institute indicated that schools with police officers had five times as many arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without police. Over a quarter million students received legal consequences from security resource officers in 2015, for behavior that prior to staffing schools with police would have resulted in a stern lecture from school personnel.

The U.S. Department of Justice has stated that Security Resource Officers tend to criminalize minor school infractions putting students inappropriately into the school-to-prison pipeline. This forces students to leave school and enter the juvenile justice system. Even if determined to be innocent of any crimes and released, the child has still lost school time falling behind in their learning. Additionally, a record is created that can follow them throughout their lives and impact their future opportunities.

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Many have said that over-policing and surveillance of students in Chicago SRO schools continually give teachers the option to use police as a disciplinary tool. The threat of arrest is used as a method of tamping down the violence in schools. However, there is the question of the long-term effects of this in terms of the constant criminalization of youth, especially youth of color or those who are disabled and whether it causes schools to become more like juvenile detention facilities.

Over 30 elected Local School Councils in Chicago voted to remove one or both SRO’s this summer. The majority of Chicago high schools that voted to get rid of one officer are in low-income Black neighborhoods. Schools that voted to get rid of both officers have mostly Latino students or a mixed student body.

Lightfoot has supported the role of Local School Councils (LSCs) taking responsibility for determining if particular schools will have an SRO on staff. Yet, after the LSC’s had voted on the matter, with the majority opting to remove one or both SROs from schools, Lightfoot tasked Chicago School Board members, all of whom are appointed by her, to decide the matter. When they voted to retain all SRO’s, Lightfoot permitted this decision to overrule those LSCs who had voted to remove officers from schools.

CPS said the reason for keeping both officers in schools was related to “concerns raised by CPD to ensure the safety of schools and their school community” as we recover from the pandemic. They claim that two officers are needed to support the transition back to in-person learning.

No explanation of the concerns cited was provided by CPS or CPD.

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