In her four years at Dyett High School on the South Side, 17-year-old Destiny Bell remembers feeling like there weren’t enough adults she could tap for emotional support. But there was always a police officer in the building.
“We need someone we can talk to,” she said. “Not cops.”
Bell, who graduated this month, is one of two dozen youth who protested outside Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle’s house Wednesday morning ahead of a school board meeting where members were set to vote on a resolution that would end the $33 million contract between Chicago’s school district and police department. The contract pays for more than 200 police officers — or “school resource officers” — to be posted at 73 high schools, according to the district.
The activists outside del Valle’s house invited the former city clerk and Illinois state senator to join them on the sidewalk and discuss their concerns about the danger posed by keeping police in schools, especially to Black, Latinx, and immigrant students
Del Valle declined.
“You can stay here as long as you don’t make any noise but I want you to know I’m voting no on the resolution,” he told the crowd from his front porch.
The school board president kept his word. The measure to end the school police contract failed to pass the seven-person board, as del Valle and three other board members voted against it. Before the vote, Del Valle cited concerns about gang activity in and around schools as justification for extending the contract. Three board members voted in favor of the resolution: Amy Rome, Luisiana Meléndez, and Elizabeth Todd-Breland.
“I’m a Black mother, I’m a resident of the South Side of Chicago, I’m a former LSC member, I’m a former high school college counselor, a historian, and an education researcher who studies race and education in Chicago,” Todd-Breland said. “And in all of these roles, I am clear that police do not belong in schools.”
She argued that having police in schools helps fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, and noted that police officers at Chicago schools have “about 2,000 misconduct allegations against them” and have cost the district millions in lawsuit settlements.
Wednesday’s vote came as cities like Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, and Charlottesville, Virginia, have recently taken steps to get cops out of their schools in the wake of mass protests against police violence and anti-Black racism, and calls to defund police departments.
An ordinance introduced in City Council last week to terminate the school police contract was successfully blocked by former police sergeant and chair of the City Council’s public safety committee, Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th).
However, at Wednesday’s school board meeting, board member Dwayne Truss said each school should decide if they wan’t police in their building or not.
“School resource officers are needed in the schools that want them,” he said. “Chicago is a city of different communities. That’s why LSC should be the ones empowered to make that decision because they understand their communities best.”
Chicago City Council members also spoke at the board meeting to weigh in on the debate. Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd), a former school teacher, spoke in favor of the motion to get police officers out of schools.
“What my students needed was support — social workers, counselors, reliable adults that they could trust,” she said. “They did not need police. Their communities are full of police.”
But Taliaferro told board members that cops are needed in schools to thwart school shootings and other potential acts of violence.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot — who both appointed Taliaferro to his committee post and hand-picked the school board — has said she wants the decision to keep cops in schools to rest with individual Local School Councils, which are elected bodies at schools made up of parents, teachers, and community members.
When CPS allowed the councils to vote on whether cops should be removed from their schools, the district reported that LSC members at every school opted to keep them.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacey Davis-Gates says the district isn’t giving schools the option to keep the money used for police to use for other programs if they’re voted out.
“If Local School Councils say no, that they don’t want police in their schools, they don’t get that portion of the $33 million contract. It’s a disingenuous argument,” she said.
Mueze Bawany, an English and social studies teacher at Clemente Community Academy in West Town, joined protesters outside del Valle’s home Wednesday because he wants the board to spend dollars allocated for police on social and emotional health for his students.
“The toughest part for me is seeing how many of our students need more than the support we can give in the classroom,” he said. “A lot of my students have needs when it comes to mental health. A lot of my students come from hardship, especially my homeless students.”
Essence Gathering, a rising senior at Lindbloom Math and Science Academy, who protested outside the school board president’s house Wednesday, questioned whether police officers are necessary to keep schools safe.
“We have cops and we have security guards,” she said. “I don’t see the purpose of having both.”
Unfortunately for her, students don’t get a vote on the matter.
CPS Chief of Safety and Security Jadine Chou said at Wednesday’s board meeting that school police officers undergo 40 hours of training from the National Association of School Resource Officers, plus another eight hours of training on CPS protocols and the student code of conduct.
Chou said the number of times high schools have used police for assistance has gone down from about 3,000 calls in the 2014-15 school to fewer than 1,200 in the 2018-19 school year.
Despite that drop, police are still being called on Black students at a higher rate than their peers. During the 2019-20 school year, Black students accounted for 60% of police notifications at schools, even though they make up 36% of the district’s student population, according to Chou.
Youth activists argue the numbers prove that police in schools puts Black students at risk of being siphoned into the school-to-prison-pipeline. Activists also argue that the officers endanger students who are undocumented immigrants, who can be deported or have their chances of attaining U.S. residency or citizenship dashed by a criminal record.
“We’re at risk of being criminalized and being put into the criminal justice system when we’re in our hallways,” said Citlali Perez, 18, who graduated last year from Back of the Yards High School, a predominantly Latinx school in a community home to a large number of immigrants.
“We know about the risk of having a police interaction when you’re undocumented, so when you have a cop in your school, that risk follows you.”