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Police Officer Or Counselor? Chicago School Police Trained To Straddle The Line

New training for Chicago school-based police officers urges them to be both officers as well as educators and counselors.

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Chicago police patrol the neighborhood as children arrive at Gresham Elementary School on the first day of classes Monday, Aug. 26. 2013.

Chicago police patrol the neighborhood as children arrive at Gresham Elementary School on the first day of classes Monday, Aug. 26. 2013.

AP Photos/M. Spencer Green

Police stationed in Chicago Public Schools say they feel intense pressure as they try to handle sometimes confrontational students, while keeping in mind that any misstep could get them on the evening news.

Discussion of the tight rope they walk came on the first day of 40 hours of required training for school police officers. While school-based police officers have attended crisis intervention training and other general sessions, this is the first time in a decade the department has mandated formal training.

It’s part of a federal consent decree — a court-approved reform plan created in the wake of the 2016 Laquan McDonald murder. The Police Department is paying the National Association of School Resource Officers $75,000 to train the almost 200 officers that work in roughly 80 schools.

The training also comes after the city of Chicago inspector general released a scathing report last year highlighting that school police officers lacked unique training.

And activists have called for such training for years. They have criticized school police for being too aggressive and arresting students in situations that could be dealt with by school officials. Mayor Lori Lightfoot also has asked the schools chief and the police superintendent to evaluate whether these officers are needed.

Most public high schools in Chicago have at least one police officer. Elementary schools are often served by “roving” officers who are called in when needed.

The teenage brain

This week, about 50 officers attended the second of three sessions. The session covers a range of topics, from understanding special needs students to teenage brain development, ethics and navigating social media.

The instructors emphasized that, while they are law enforcement officials first, they also must serve as educators and counselors. They encouraged officers to go into classes and teach lessons, as well as work in afterschool activities.

Many of the officers said they already are coaches and find out what is going on when students seem troubled.

But one of the officers challenged the idea that this approach works with every student.

“We got kids that are waiting on the police to engage them, so they can engage them back ‘cause they hate the police,” said one officer, who didn’t want to be identified. He went on to say it’s easy to build relationships with students who have strong family foundations and may just need a little extra support.

But it can be near impossible when students have built up a lot of mistrust with police and want to look tough in front of their friends, he said.

“They ain’t trying to be friends with me, so I ain’t trying to be friends with them,” he said.

Rudy Perez, an instructor who is also a school police officer in Los Angeles, said he understands the situation but urged the officer to respond to confrontation by thinking and not just reacting.

Another instructor, Don Bridges, pointed out that if an officer responds too harshly, it could get them in trouble.

Many officers nodded their heads, with one saying, “Social media scares the crap out of me.”

The training also highlighted deficiencies in Chicago’s program that can’t be solved by the officers. For example, there was a lot of talk about making sure school-based officers know their roles and responsibilities and avoid taking on other duties, like disciplinarian. Bridges told officers to learn to “stay in their lane.”

But Chicago doesn’t have an up-to-date agreement between the Police Department and Chicago Public Schools outlining their duties. A new “memorandum of understanding” is being drafted — another mandate tied to the consent decree. It will be presented at the first of four community forums Wednesday evening.

Sgt. John Knezevich said he is thankful for the sessions. He said some of the past well-publicized problems might have been prevented had officers been properly trained.

“It is a difficult thing to deal with the youth,” he said. “You are talking grammar school all the way through high school. Some of these high school kids are 19 years old so they are adults and they act foolish. The training helps us deal with these situations to de-escalate things and make things a lot better in the schools.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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