‘Gang contracts’ in Cicero and Berwyn schools raise concerns about criminalization of youth

This story was co-produced by Type Investigations, where Irene Romulo is an Ida B. Wells fellow; Cicero Independiente; and Injustice Watch. Illustrations by Veronica Martínez. Leer en Español.

Roberto is a 17-year-old resident of Cicero, Illinois, who is on track to graduate after this summer and will be the first in his family to earn a high school diploma. His mother describes Roberto, her oldest son, as a charismatic young man who cares deeply about his friends and wants to experience the world.

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“I’m still discovering [who I am] to be honest,” Roberto said.

But the mother and son worry that his disciplinary record will follow him outside school and beyond graduation. Roberto, whose name has been changed in this article since he’s a minor and still a student, is one of 34 students enrolled in the J. Sterling Morton High School District who signed a “Gang Behavior Contract” in 2019.

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The gang contract is a one-page form given to students whom school district administrators have identified as having engaged in behavior interpreted as gang-related.

Previous versions of the contract, used as late as 2018, say the contract is part of the superintendent and school board members’ “zero-tolerance stand against gangs.” These contracts included a line for administrators to enter a “suspected gang affiliation,” and at least one version informed signers that a “student’s locker may be subject to occasional searches.” It also explained that an appeal of the contract could be made to a building administrator within 48 hours. This language does not appear on the most recent version of the contracts.

A hard copy of each “Gang Behavior Contract” used by the Morton High School District, which is headquartered in Cicero and serves a predominately Latinx population, is stored in the schools’ deans’ offices. It prohibits a student from engaging in what could be considered gang-related behavior and warns that they could face escalating disciplinary measures for breaking the agreement. Several school districts around the country have used gang contracts for similar reasons.

Roberto and his mom said he has signed two gang contracts so far. Roberto remembers first signing one during his freshman year after a fight.

Roberto said school administrators told him that he would have to sign a gang contract because the other students involved in the fight were gang-affiliated.

“I wasn’t even gangbanging,” he recalled. “I was just defending someone; they didn’t want to hear my story.”

Roberto’s disciplinary records include a copy of the second contract that he signed in fall 2019. Documents in his school disciplinary records say it was for flashing gang signs.

Roberto’s mom, Laura, who asked to be identified in this article by another name,  remembers meeting with school administrators after both incidents. Laura and Roberto said they did not fully understand how signing the gang contract might impact him long term. But they said school administrators told them after the first incident that Roberto might be forced out of school if they did not sign the form.

To Laura, signing a contract also meant that the school administrators were forcing her son to admit a gang affiliation that she maintains didn’t exist.

“I was just a little shocked,” she said. “Why, if I want him to continue to go into school, do I have to consider my son gang-affiliated and [have this be] put on his record?”

An investigation by Cicero Independiente, Type Investigations and Injustice Watch reveals, for the first time, that more than 100 students attending school in the working-class suburban communities of Cicero and Berwyn have signed these gang contracts over seven years. Our investigation shows that administrators have often had students sign the agreements for vague or seemingly subjective reasons — and in a few cases for no specified reason.

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In at least one instance, information about a student who signed a contract was shared with local police. The information passed to cops affirms a widespread concern that such contracts serve to criminalize youth in a town that has a problematic history of targeting accused gang members.

Documents obtained through a public records request show that 109 students signed the contracts between 2014 and 2021 at four of the six schools that the Morton High School District operates in Cicero and Berwyn. The schools where gang contracts were signed include East High School, the Freshman Center, and the Alternative High School in Cicero and West High School in Berwyn.

The contracts do not show student names. But the documents detail why school administrators concluded that students should be given the contract and the date that students signed it. Some of the records show what disciplinary measure the school doled out. At least six of these contracts have been signed during the 2021 school year, when students were in remote learning.

For at least three of these contracts, the space where an administrator is supposed to list the gang-related behavior is left blank. On other contracts, hairstyles, shaved eyebrows, hand gestures, “watching videos,” “graphics” and “loitering” are listed as sufficient evidence to establish a gang affiliation. Some simply say “engaging in gang affiliated behavior” or “shaking up with [redacted]”.

The contract language prohibits students from, among other things, engaging in “conversation” that could be interpreted as gang-affiliated; wearing certain colors, jewelry or hairstyles; or posting videos, comments or pictures on social media that could be considered gang-related. If the student fails to adhere to these expectations, they face a three- to five-day suspension for the first violation and a five- to 10-day suspension for a second. At least two of the contracts state that the student and parent refused to sign.

School deans determine whether an action merits a gang contract, according to a “Process for Gang Contracts” document obtained through a records request. But the document does not state who monitors students once they have signed the agreement.

Roberto thinks the contract “kind of limits what you do in school … [teachers and principals] look down on you in a way.”

Roberto’s concerns are shared by lawyers working on school discipline issues, gang intervention workers, parents, community organizers and a former school district administrator interviewed for this article. The criminalization of young people, especially gang-involved youth, is especially concerning in the wake of the killing of Adam Toledo, a 13-year-old shot by Chicago police officer Eric Stillman in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. Elected officials and at least one prominent media commentator have blamed Adam’s alleged gang membership for his death.

Chris Bridges, program counsel at the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said his organization worries that Morton High School District administrators might use the gang contracts to force students into alternative schools or push them out of school completely. “Law enforcement could potentially use them to criminalize students of color, who already face higher odds of being suspended, expelled and arrested at school,” he wrote in an emailed response.

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And there’s evidence that may be happening.

Email exchanges obtained through a records request show that the principal at Morton West shared the name of one student who signed a gang contract with a local police department. In one string of email correspondence, Michael G. Cirolia, the now-deputy chief of police at the Berwyn Police Department, requested that Morton West High School Principal Kristy Cavanaugh identify three students in pictures submitted to a patrol unit by a parent who accused the students of throwing gang signs.

Cavanaugh identified two of the students and confirmed that one had previously signed a gang contract. Cirolia then replied that he would forward the information to the tactical unit. It is unclear whether the student faced additional disciplinary consequences.

The high school district said the gang contracts are not shared with law enforcement but did not respond to questions about the above email exchange.

“The purpose of a gang contract, like any intervention, [is] to support our students to be successful,” said the high district’s superintendent, Timothy Truesdale, via email. “[It] is to identify ways to work together to ensure the student is successful and our schools are safe” he added. The district and various administrators contacted for this story did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.

Truesdale denied that the gang contract puts students on a track toward more serious consequences for behavior, but the contract lists escalating disciplinary actions for violating a list of stated expectations. Truesdale did not respond to questions about whether students and parents might feel pressured to sign a gang contract to avoid expulsion like Roberto and his mom said.

The Illinois State Board of Education has flagged the Morton High School District’s relatively high use of suspensions. For the past four years, the district has remained in the top 20% of school districts across the state that suspend students at exceedingly high rates, according to ISBE data. While the district has lowered rates of in-school and out-of-school suspensions since 2018, it remains in the top fifth of ISBE’s list.

Because the gang contracts we obtained from the Morton High School District had names and identifying information redacted, it’s difficult to fully know the disciplinary consequences and long-term impact on the high school students who signed them.

But it’s not only high school students who are being labeled as gang-affiliated by school administrators, and Morton isn’t the only school district compiling lists of students accused of gang membership. Cicero’s only middle school, Unity Junior High, has started tracking alleged gang members in seventh and eighth grade, according to records obtained from the Cicero School District 99, which oversees the middle school and elementary schools.

In 2018, using “training and guidance” by the Cicero Police Department, the Cicero School District 99 began compiling lists of students who have alleged gang involvement, according to records obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Aldo Calderin, the current Unity principal and interim superintendent for the Cicero School District 99, said in an email the school started creating a “gang database” to “keep track of what students were involved to keep the rest of the students and staff safe.” Calderin said parents are made aware of the gang activity their child is involved in at the school and district. However, he acknowledged that the students and parents do not know about students being included in a gang database.

Calderin explained that students are added to the list when they admit to an administrator, teacher or parent that they are involved in gangs or when they are involved in gang-related activities. Students can be added to the list based on writings and drawings on notebooks, displaying gang symbols or paraphernalia, social media posts, graffiti or fights.

David Stovall said the use of gang lists in middle school are “just really problematic.” Stovall is a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Stovall also works with community organizations and schools to address issues related to equity, justice, and abolishing the school to prison nexus. He said gang lists often end up creating groups of students who are then seen as “disposable” and not given the resources they need.

The origins of Cicero’s war on gangs

Anti-gang policies proliferated in Cicero during the 1990s, when the town and nearby Berwyn underwent drastic demographic changes.

In 1990, only 37% of Cicero’s population was Latinx, according to census data. By 2000, Cicero’s Latinx population increased to 77%. In that same period, Berwyn’s Latinx population increased from almost 8% to 38%. Today, 89% of Cicero’s population and 64% of Berwyn’s is Latinx, according to census figures.

Cicero resident Delia Barajas remembers “a large influx of young Latinx folks coming here to buy homes” in Cicero during the ’90s.

“It was a really challenging time here in Cicero, with some of the young students involved with gangs,” she said. However, Barajas emphasized that even students who make mistakes are entitled to stay in school and not be criminalized.

In 1999, she joined the fight against the town of Cicero’s war against gangs after seeing this become a “community issue,” Barajas said. She began working at a local nonprofit organization, where she advised parents of students facing expulsion because of alleged gang affiliation. Barajas said she recognized that many parents did not have the resources to hire attorneys to represent them in expulsion hearings at school. Barajas would also often accompany families to court. She remembers seeing hallways full of young Latinx students facing criminal charges waiting for court dates.

In 1999, when Cicero was considering adopting two “gang-free” zone ordinances targeting alleged gang members living within city limits, Barajas was quoted in The New York Times calling the ordinances  “an injustice to the Latino families” in the town. Activists at the time worried the ordinances would disproportionately target Latinx youth.

The gang-free zone ordinance, adopted unanimously by Cicero’s board of trustees on April 27, 1999, created a process for the superintendent of the police to request a hearing with the town attorney to identify accused gang members, including children younger than age 16. If a hearing officer found that the accused person was indeed a gang member who had engaged in gang-related criminal activity, then the person could be ordered to leave Cicero or be fined $500 daily.

Another ordinance authorized the town to impound the vehicle of any suspected gang member entering a gang-free zone. In May 2000, following a legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union, Cicero entered a consent decree to no longer enforce the provision allowing for the impoundment of vehicles. The gang-free ordinance still exists in the town’s municipal code but is not enforced.

These ordinances were part of Cicero’s zero-tolerance response to gangs. Today, the Cicero Police Department has a special Gang Crimes Tactical Unit, as does the Berwyn Police Department.

Cicero officials told The New York Times in the late ’90s that they had a list of 600 “known gang members,” including minors.

Now, more than 16,000 names are in an electronic database kept by Cicero called the Gang Book, including minors, according to the town’s response to a public records request. Cicero has a population of a little more than 84,000 people.

A Cicero representative stated that these records are continuously updated by the town and other law enforcement agencies. But the Cicero police superintendent, Jerry Chlada Jr., said he could not estimate how many of those entries are for people younger than age 18.

The battle against gangs enters schools

A former Morton High School District administrator who worked in Cicero in the 1990s and 2000s said local schools adopted the city’s tough on gangs position. The former administrator spoke on condition of anonymity because he still works in Cicero. He said the punishment for gang activity was severe. The schools’ zero tolerance for gang behavior and other misconduct resulted in what he remembers was an unprecedented number of suspensions and a high dropout rate.

Gang contracts were in use while the administrator worked in the district during the 2000s. He thinks the contracts were a severe form of punishment that help push more vulnerable students out of school. He said parents in Cicero, who are predominantly Spanish speakers, may not be fully aware of the implications of these contracts.

“If we were in Hinsdale Central [High School], would they be telling kids, ‘Sign this contract?’ I don’t think so,” he explained, comparing Cicero to a predominantly white suburb nearby. “You’re gonna have parents saying, ‘… Here’s my attorney, he wants to talk to you about this contract.’ … Parents [in Cicero] don’t have the resources to do that.”

While he does not deny that there were gangs in Cicero at the time, he said “there were a lot of people affiliated with the school that thought that the gangs were a much bigger problem than they really were.”

He thinks teachers are not well equipped to identify gang affiliations, especially because many teachers may not understand the students’ cultural backgrounds and may misinterpret behavior.

“In a school that is 98% Latino with a staff that’s 80% white, don’t you find it a little bit odd that they would come into the school and say it is a gang-ridden place?” he continued. “Because [they] saw a little tagging in a kid’s spiral notebook?”

“Teachers are there to teach. … It’s not her job to be looking for gang behavior,” he said. “I had a teacher once at Morton … who had a ‘gang antenna,’ and it used to annoy the heck out of me; that’s not your job.”

Critics of gang contracts in Cicero schools worry that school officials could share information about students that lands them in the town’s gang database.

While the gang database hasn’t made many headlines in Cicero, such databases have spurred criticism of other local police forces. In Cook County, where Cicero resides, the sheriff’s office stopped using a gang database that it maintained and destroyed all records, following pushback from organizers with the Erase the Database campaign. The same group has sued the Chicago Police Department for maintaining a gang database that they said is full of errors and can lead to longer sentences and deportation of undocumented individuals.

Truesdale, the superintendent for the Morton High School District, said in an email the school district does not share gang contracts with anyone but the student and parents. But in addition to the emails we obtained showing that school officials shared one student’s name from the gang contract list with Berwyn police after a complaint from a parent, other emails obtained show that the alternative school principal, Erin Kelly, shared a blank gang contract with Cicero Police Officer Vincent Acevez in 2017.

Truesdale did not respond to additional questions about these emails.

Chlada, the superintendent of the Cicero Police Department, said the gang behavior contracts are not shared with the police department, but that on occasion Gang Crimes Tactical Unit officers employed at Morton East, the Alternative and the Freshman Center will share with the rest of the unit or the patrol division information about any gang-affiliated incidents, such as fights. Chlada did not deny that students’ names may be shared in these instances.

“My stance has been for years that every single gang altercation in a school should … have the police involved,” he explained. “But, of course, there are times when they do not contact us for that.”

Two gang intervention workers we spoke to, along with Roberto and his family, think that the gang contract information is shared with police.

“It was explained to me [by a school administrator] that if a cop looks up [Roberto’s] record, [the gang contract] is on his file,” said his mother.

“If I were to get arrested anytime soon and I’m still in school, the cops go to the school and ask, ‘Is he on the gang contract?’” Roberto explained. “If they see that I’m on the gang contract, then they’ll mark me in the database that I’m gang affiliated, and then that’ll go on my record.”

At Unity Middle School, where a list of students who may be gang-affiliated is also kept, records show that select administrative staff and school resource officers have access to this information.

Calderin, the interim superintendent for the Cicero School District 99 and principal at Unity, said his district only shares the gang list with police officers employed by the district to work at Unity as school resource officers, not with the Cicero Police Department. He said as district employees, these officers would be subject to discipline if they were to disclose student school records, with the student names included, to the police.

Gang activity is listed as one of the activities that should be reported to the police department if it happens in school or on school grounds, according to intergovernmental agreements between the Cicero Police Department and the Cicero School District 99 that were obtained through FOIA requests.

At the Morton high schools, records show that 116 different police officers have worked inside the schools on a part-time basis since 1996, according to records obtained from the district. Since 2013, at least five of those officers have been members of the Cicero Police Department’s Gang Crimes Tactical Unit, including Vincent Acevez, the police commander who received the blank contract from Kelly. Acevez is now the deputy superintendent of patrol.

“It just essentially creates another way for law enforcement to get involved in the lives of young folks with really no purpose but to criminalize them,” Stovall said. “If you’ve got the gang tactical unit in the school, then that gets you in all types of heightened situations.”

Better alternatives

Barajas and other community members formed the Education Committee (formerly part of the Cicero-based community organization Ixchel) to organize around school concerns in 2012. The group has been aware of the gang contracts for years and thinks the use of these gang contracts should be discontinued.

They said the high school should instead focus on implementing restorative justice practices and support systems to address students’ social and emotional needs, especially after such a tumultuous year.

Bridges, the attorney from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who has been working with Barajas and the Education Committee, wrote in an email that “students are returning to school at a time of immense collective trauma, especially among Black and brown families disproportionately harmed by the Covid-19 pandemic and by relentless police killings and violence.”

“Schools should be providing more social-emotional support, not more pathways to prison,” he wrote, “especially in Cicero.”

In a letter sent to Truesdale in fall 2019, the group asked the Morton High School District to diversify school staff by hiring more educators who reflect the cultural and racial makeup of the student body and requested policies that acknowledge that “gang membership is a symptom of trauma.”

“At the core, [gangs are] this space where young people try to find acceptance,” said Ismael Vargas Jr., a youth worker who moved to Cicero in the early 2000s and until recently was the director of youth services at Corazon Community Services.

Vargas thinks that Cicero and similar communities should invest more money in after-school programs and resources for young people of all ages. He said more spaces that provide mentorship and nonacademic support are “positive things that will help them down the line, especially young people who make mistakes.”

Pablo Galvez is a street intervention specialist at Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development (also known as BUILD), a violence prevention and youth development organization in Chicago. He also works with students from Cicero. The mentorship program he runs pays participants $12.50 per hour for four hours per week. He said this helps keep young people engaged, but he wishes participants could be employed for more hours.

“[Participants] always cry about it. ‘Man, I need a job. … I gotta keep busy,’” he said.

In the wake of a Chicago police officer killing 13-year-old Adam, Vargas said the Latinx community has to engage in difficult conversations about solutions that only lead to more harassment from police.

“We don’t support each other enough,” he said. “Someone can be in a bad situation, and instead of showing support, or just some empathy, we’re quick to label them and say they’re getting it because they deserve it.”

Roberto, who is friends with other students who knew Adam, echoed the call for empathy.

“I feel like people just didn’t really understand [Adam],” he said. “If they were in his shoes or other peoples’ shoes around him, they’d feel how they feel.”

Roberto now has a weekend job and plans to pursue a career in carpentry or another trade, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, once he graduates.

Looking back at his high school career, Roberto wishes he hadn’t done so many “stupid things” and called for the school to prepare students with skills to deal with an uncertain future after Covid-19.

“I just feel like adults should keep their children close, especially in this time now,” he said. “People are dying, so just keep them close. Be there for them.”

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