More than 30 Chicago high schools will pursue alternatives to police

When students at Hyde Park Academy High School on the South Side return to school next year, a new dean of school culture and climate will begin handling some disputes through restorative justice. The Gordon S. Hubbard High School in West Lawn will have a dedicated staff member coordinating social and emotional support for students. And the Emil G. Hirsch Metropolitan High School in Greater Grand Crossing will have a full-time social worker.

All three schools will free up funds for these positions by removing one of their two in-school police officers. They’re among 31 Chicago public high schools that plan to reduce or eliminate their police presence next year, after Chicago Public Schools’ Local School Councils concluded voting on the controversial issue last week.

Police presence in schools disproportionately affects Black and brown students, sometimes placing them on a fast-track to the school-to-prison pipeline. Fifty-three Chicago high schools had police known as “school resource officers” assigned to them during the past school year, although closures from the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the cops didn’t patrol on campuses. Ahead of a planned return this fall, school councils had three options to choose from: retain both officers, remove them both, or remove just one. Of the 31 schools that chose the latter two options, seven opted to completely eliminate police, according to a count released yesterday on the CPS’s website. Another 20 schools chose to retain both. Two more have yet to finalize results.

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Maira Khwaja, one of the community representatives on Hyde Park Academy’s council, said the vote at her school represented “a huge win for the movement to remove police from schools and support our students in more holistic ways.”

But some parents and students also say a more inclusive decision-making process is still needed.

Whole school safety

Last summer, Local School Council voting on school resource officers became a focal point of protests against police violence. Activists rallying around the banner of #CopsOutCPS called for the school district to cancel its $33 million contract with the police department, a decision that it punted to individual school councils. In a sometimes-opaque process, the overwhelming majority of school councils chose to keep police, but 17 voted to remove them. Critics charged that the school district’s failure to offer additional resources to schools that voted to remove police incentivized them to maintain the status quo.

After pledging to “review and reimagine a vision for the future of safety in schools,” the school district this year offered a menu of alternative safety options — such as restorative practices, trauma-informed crisis intervention, and improved mental health resources — as well as the promise of funding to implement them.

This spring, each high school was supposed to create its own safety committee — made up of teachers, staff, parents, and students — to devise and present a Whole School Safety Plan for their school councils to vote on.

Natasha Erskine, a parent organizer with the public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand, said the process at some schools failed to meaningfully engage school community members. While “these safety plans were supposed to be an inclusive school community process,” she said, at some schools, principals drove the process, and at others, few school council members had seen the plan before it was presented for a vote.

As part of these safety plans, the school district agreed to fund alternative safety options worth up to $50,000 for each police officer schools opted to remove. Schools seeking additional funding would need special approval from the district.

But not all schools knew about the possibility of funding for alternative safety options in the first place, according to Rebecca Martinez, organizing director for the Chicago Teachers Union.

“The process CPS created was confusing and lacked transparency,” said Martinez in a statement emailed to Injustice Watch. “Some LSCs were not told they could elect to receive funds in exchange for a (school resource officer), nor were all told how much funding they’d receive, making it more difficult for teachers, parents and school communities to come to a decision on police in schools. It’s challenging for school communities to make informed decisions when they’ve been starved of resources for years.”

Moreover, when 17 schools voted to remove police last year, there were no alternatives on offer. It was unclear whether those schools subsequently had an avenue to seek additional funding this year. Reached by Injustice Watch via email, a CPS spokesperson did not answer whether those schools had the opportunity to request resources for alternative safety strategies.

George Washington High School is one such school, having voted 6-5 in favor of removing its police in August 2020. Trinity Colon, the student representative on the school’s local council, said that engaging in CPS’ safety planning process this year has been difficult without knowing what resources would be available.

“We’re talking about dismissal time, and who’s gonna be there instead of police?” she said. “It’s been kind of hard making a plan without that money.”

‘You can’t tell students what safety looks like for them’

For some schools that voted to remove one or both of their school resource officers, the path forward is still unclear. Jones College Prep in the South Loop is still deliberating which alternative safety strategies that it will implement, including hiring additional security officers and hiring a restorative justice coordinator, according to Cassie Creswell, the school council chair. She instead favors hiring a restorative justice coordinator.

Jones College Prep, like a number of other schools that voted to remove police, is a selective enrollment school. That’s part of what makes Hyde Park Academy’s vote to replace one of two police officers so significant, said Khwaja, the community representative. “We don’t have the most resources on the South Side, so I think it’s a really optimistic sign for other open enrollment neighborhood schools to realize that our kids deserve the same type of holistic care as kids in selective enrollment schools,” she said.

Hyde Park Academy’s new Whole School Safety Plan tasks the dean with training the school community on restorative justice practices, creating a “peace room,” and setting up a youth council for more peer-to-peer engagement. The school council is awaiting approval from the school district for $85,000 to pay for the dean’s salary.

Inspiration for this model came in part from the Christian Fenger Academy High School in Roseland, which became the first school in the district in 2010 to create a staff position focused specifically on holistic wellness and restorative justice. The culture and climate coordinator at the time, Dr. Robert Spicer Sr., was tasked with shifting the school’s approach to discipline to reduce suspension rates. The changes that he introduced included peer mediation, which trained student ambassadors to mediate conversations about the harm that another student has caused and steps that they can take to address it. This alternative approach worked: The number of serious disruptive behaviors among students decreased by 78%, according to CPS disciplinary data between 2010 and 2013.

“All the metrics that we wanted to go down went down, and the key metric, attendance, went up,” Spicer said. “That was us pulling back from using zero-tolerance (policies), but it was also the children saying that this is a safe place, and we feel comfortable, and we want to come to school.”

There are now 51 school culture coordinators across the school district, according to the most recent position files — although many, like at Fenger, still work alongside school police.

For the youth organization GoodKidsMadCity, which has been organizing against gun violence since 2018, investment in alternative safety strategies must extend outside school grounds. The group has been working relentlessly to pass its own city council ordinance for an alternative to police in neighborhoods and schools known as the Peacebook Ordinance. It is seeking a 2% reallocation of funds from the police department to go toward resident-led violence prevention programs.

“You can’t tell students what safety looks like for them,” said Taylore Norwood, communications director and co-founder of GoodKidsMadCity. “You should sit them down and listen to what they’re telling you safety looks like for them which is, unfortunately for a lot of these Black and brown students, not the police.”