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Chicago board of education unanimously votes to end CPD contract, remove SROs

“It is no reflection on the great work our police officers were doing in schools...” Superintendent Larry Snelling said. “CPD is going to continue to do what we’ve always done: Protect our children, protect the streets”

Chicago Police Department

CPS must present the new policy to the board for final approval by June 27. It must include explicit orders to end the use of resource officers by the first day of classes in the fall, along with an implementation plan with the mayor’s office and Chicago police.

Brian Cassella

By Alysa Guffey, Sarah Macaraeg and Zareen Syed
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — The Chicago Board of Education unanimously voted on Thursday to terminate its $10.3 million school resource officer program in Chicago Public Schools and order schools to remove uniformed police officers before the 2024-25 school year starts.

At its monthly meeting, the board passed a resolution requiring the district to create a new policy that “codifies best practices for a holistic approach to school safety at every District school.” The resolution, backed by Mayor Brandon Johnson, passed following hours of public comment from students, parents, aldermen and union representatives.

CPS must present the new policy to the board for final approval by June 27. It must include explicit orders to end the use of resource officers by the first day of classes in the fall, along with an implementation plan with the mayor’s office and Chicago police.

School resource officers are uniformed police officers responsible for safety at nearly 40 high schools across the district. A maximum of two resource officers work at a school. The overwhelming majority of district schools, 595, have no resource officers currently.

In joining the ranks of around 70 school districts nationally that have adopted policies to remove police from schools, according to a 2023 Georgetown Law report, the board’s vote resolved a long-running debate on whether police should be allowed in Chicago schools and made good on a 2020 district commitment to phase out their use.

The 2020 resolution passed by the board, named the “Whole School Safety Program,” instructed CPS to develop a plan to implement alternative safety systems “for CPS students in every school that prioritizes their physical and social-emotional well-being, learning, and transformation.”

Prior to the vote, board members said removing resource officers would not end the district’s relationship with the Chicago police to facilitate safety during arrival and dismissal times and respond to emergencies.

Opponents of resource officers say the controversial program leads to higher rates of discrimination against students of color. Data on school-based arrests released by the district in 2020 showed the overwhelming majority — 73% — involved Black students, who were only 36% of students. Calls to police continue to be disproportionately higher for students with disabilities, according to the resolution.

Four students representing high schools across the district presented conclusions from a January student roundtable on school safety, detailing how students largely feel unsafe with security and would prefer to see resources used for counselors.

“People have voiced concerns about how security guards can stir things up,” said Damarion Spann, a Collins High School sophomore and one of the students residing over the roundtable. “We want to push for better training for them to be able to approach and handle problems the right way without adding fuel to the fire.”

Supporters of resource officers pleaded with the board to leave the measure up to individual school communities, citing how schools have different needs. Several aldermen who said their communities had disproportionately higher youth violence told the board they believed schools in their wards need uniformed police.

“It is imperative we don’t do away with the entire system because it works in some districts,” said Ald. Monique Scott, 24th. Scott added that principals in her ward contact her saying they need help with behavioral concerns during the school day.

Counselors, not cops, can best address behavioral challenges, said Jose Navarro, a Curie High School senior and member of the school’s LSC. “Police cannot protect students when (they are) experiencing a mental health crisis,” he said.

Under state statute, the board is responsible for approving a districtwide “disciplinary action plan” to prevent disparities, according to board member Tayna Woods.

Board Vice President Elizabeth Todd-Breland said the resolution was about more than school resource officers and represented a “shift to a model of holistic safety.”

‘Significant need’ for alternative supports

According to Ryan King of the Justice Policy Institute, the vote puts CPS in line with best practices — at a time when the district can learn from other cities’ mistakes.

There is no evidence to show that having a police presence by adding officers actually results in safer schools, said King, the director of research and policy at the national nonprofit, which promotes fair and effective reforms to the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

“There’s been no positive impact in terms of reducing crime by having police presence in schools,” King said. “The reality is that most SROs (school resource officers) end up being involved in lower level issues that we would probably put under the category of things that are typically handled by the actual leadership of the school, so there’s very little criminal activity that SROs are really preventing.”

King noted there are several districts across the country that previously got rid of the officers on school grounds, but reversed course and reintroduced them after being confronted with a growing mental health crisis among adolescents. But instead of bringing back the same enforcements, King said the right alternatives need to be placed.

“There’s no question that there are significant needs in this country’s schools and this isn’t to suggest that there’s not a need for supports and services,” he said. “What I have seen in some jurisdictions is they’ll remove the (officers) from the school, but then they’re not making the commensurate investment in counselors and support services — they’re not bringing on staff psychologists and other interventions that can help kids who need it.”

At a media briefing Wednesday, Mayor Johnson said, “Resources will be made available for local schools to decide how they want those funds distributed.” Johnson noted that school communities can use trade-in funds to hire more security guards, mental health practitioners or other personnel.

King said the research is also clear that young Black and brown kids are significantly more likely to get pulled into the juvenile or adult criminal system through schools where there is a police presence.

“There are lifelong consequences of that,” he said. “What we would like to see is for a lot of the conduct that kids behave in, there are other ways to respond to it without engaging in law enforcement and then potentially beginning a pathway that is the school-to-prison pipeline. That could have a lifetime of negative consequences.”

CPS’ evolving approach to safety

Following racial justice protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, groups of CPS students demanded the district nullify its then-$33 million student resource officer contract with the Chicago Police Department.

Instead, with support from then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, the district cut the contract in half and punted the issue to individual school communities allowing Local School Councils — composed of principals, staff, parents, community members and student representatives — to vote on the issue.

Over the last decade, the number of school resource officers has dwindled to 57 across 39 schools this school year, down from 166 officers assigned to 74 high schools in the 2012-13 school year.

Schools with LSCs that opted to remove officers have received trade-in funds to support alternative strategies, such as hiring social work and restorative justice coordinators as well as security guards. CPS has said the district will provide trade-in funds for the remaining 39 participating schools if the program ends.

Prior to the 2023-24 academic year, the board approved a $10.3 million contract with the Chicago Police Department to post resource officers at dozens of schools that voted to keep one or two resource officers.

Among the votes by 40 LSCs last spring which determined the number of school resource officers present during the current school year, only two LSCs voted in favor of removal. The LSC at Marshall High School voted to remove both of its officers, and Austin College and Career Academy’s LSC voted to remove one.

Sean Price, the director of peace and justice for BUILD Inc., one of five community-based organizations CPS has partnered with to guide school safety planning, was involved in the Austin LSC’s discussions.

Whether LSCs should continue to make resource officer decisions has been at the heart of recent debate. But Price said in January that what matters most isn’t which CPS body makes the decision — it’s the process of talking through students’ ideas on improving safety and parents’ and administrators’ concerns.

Price said last year Austin used trade-in funds provided by the district in lieu of a second officer, to hire a school culture and climate coordinator. The school is also working on additional funding to create a meditation room, he said.

“They wanted a space where, ‘If I need to step away and take a breath, or to calm down, I have a space related to that,’” Price said of student feedback.

With administrators, student leaders and parent LSC members involved in planning and implementation, he said, “Whole School Safety creates this level of connectedness with the students who are in the schools, with the parents of the students, and then subsequently with the community as a whole.”

Regarding the potential shift to a blanket decision to remove officers by the school board, Price said, “As long as we continue to have communication, and as long as we continue to seek collaboration and partnerships with the process, I think it will be successful.”

‘How are we going to keep these kids safe?’

Since the start of the year, elected officials have taken to Board of Education meetings to urge members to either leave decisions on officers to Local School Councils or to invest in alternatives.

State Rep. Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar recently attended a board meeting at her daughter’s school, John F. Kennedy High School, where she said recurring fights among students have led to soft lockdowns. As the district lobbies the state for funds to help cover CPS’ looming $400 million deficit, Guerrero-Cuellar demanded the board clarify its plans for school security.

“What do I tell parents when they call my office and they’re talking about their kids’ safety,” she said. “I need answers from you. You need to address the community. There is no communication from CPS in terms of all the fights that are occurring.”

Guerrero-Cuellar said that in the absence of details, it’s difficult to support CPS’ appeal for additional state funds. “I’m willing to work with you as a legislator, but I have to answer to the community, just as you have to answer to the entire city of Chicago,” she said. “How are we going to keep these kids safe?”

Former board member Dwayne Truss said he attended Thursday’s board meeting to stand up for LSCs in primarily Black neighborhoods on the South and West sides that have voted in recent years to keep resource officers and to ask the board to respect the decisions of those school communities.

“The point is we have complex situations, and we have SROs who stand up for the kids,” he said.

CPS parent Dulce Arroyo said recent incidents of gun violence among youths show the need to invest in programs in neighborhood schools that support “collective healing,” such as youth centers, mental health services and recreation and job training programs.

In the past month, three CPS high school students were shot and killed and two more were wounded after leaving class for the day in two separate incidents near district schools.

“It’s heartbreaking how so many neighborhood schools, in predominantly Black and brown communities across Chicago , don’t have the funds to provide students with what they need to become their most aligned selves,” she said.

Arroyo, an organizer with Palenque LSNA, a community organization serving the Logan Square, Avondale and Hermosa neighborhoods, added, “There would be more opportunities for reimagining and building up the self-esteem of students who need guidance and support — not more policing.”

On Wednesday, Chicago police announced charges against two boys, ages 14 and 17, in the Jan. 31 slaying of Daveon Gibson, 16, two blocks away from Senn High School in the Edgewater neighborhood.

The teen suspects were charged with first-degree murder for Gibson’s death and two counts of attempted first-degree murder for wounding two other Senn students. The North Side high school does not currently employ resource officers.

Addressing reporters at a news conference, Chicago police Superintendent Larry Snelling acknowledged that the pending future of resource officers lies with the board, but said he remained committed to the work of police in schools.

“Whatever decision is made there, it is no reflection on the great work our police officers were doing in schools while mentoring the children there,” Snelling said Wednesday after announcing charges. “Those officers were trained to be in the schools. So, if those officers are removed from the schools, CPD is going to continue to do what we’ve always done: Protect our children, protect the streets.”

Senn falls within the 48th Ward represented by Ald. Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, who urged board members to pass the Whole School Safety resolution as a means to address the root causes of community violence. Senn is on the cusp of two police districts, the 20th and the 24th, which is among the safest in the city, she said.

“Yet we are not immune to tragedy,” Manaa-Hoppenworth said of the recent shooting. “Armed presence and surveillance does not necessarily lead to more safety.”

“We’re grieving. The whole community is grieving. … The fact is now we need trauma-informed care, we need victim services, we need support for the families,” to prevent violence from escalating, she said. “We need to continue to talk about something that’s different than what we have right now, because what we have right now, doesn’t work.”

Chicago Tribune’s Sam Charles and Alice Yin contributed.

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