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Getting to the bottom of school arrest numbers in Chicago

A couple of years ago I was working on a story for WBEZ and I stumbled on this number that really kinda threw me. I looked at the total number of juvenile arrests across the city in 2008 and 25 percent -- fully a quarter of them -- took place on public school property.

Well that has to be wrong, I figured.

So I went to the Chicago Police Departments and met with Robert Hargesheimer. At the time he was commander of the youth investigations division. He said I really shouldn’t read too much into those numbers I had seen.

“There are arrests made on school property that have nothing to do with anybody in school, and there are arrests at off-hours. Could be on a Saturday, it could be anytime. It could be midnight. Could be 3 o’clock in the morning, when school’s not in session at all. So it’s not the correct perception that just because something, an arrest, occurs on school property-- it could be completely, thoroughly unrelated to a school in itself. That’s the key,” Hargesheimer told me.


So I asked the police to break those numbers down. I wanted to know what kind of arrests happen exclusively Monday through Friday. And only during school hours, roughly 8 a.m to 3:30 in the afternoon.

And the Chicago Police Department did run the numbers for WBEZ.

So here’s what we can say. In 2010 and 2011, the numbers show that the preponderance -- like 94 percent -- of arrests on school property do happen Monday through Friday. And do in fact happen during school hours. Which strongly suggests that these kids are mostly getting arrested for stuff that happens at school.

Check out the chart below. It shows all misdemeanor arrests at public school locations in 2011 for young people 17 and under. Could be any day of the week, any time of day, and you see there were a total of 3,731 misdemeanor arrests at public school locations in 2011.

2011 misdemeanor arrests at CPS locations (includes all days/times of day)

Source: Chicago Police Department

Now look at the following chart below, with misdemeanor arrests at public school locations only during school hours. A total of 3,510 arrests.  More than 90 percent of misdemeanor arrests at public school locations in 2011 took place on school days and during school hours. School hours are defined in this data as between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday. 

2011 misdemeanor arrests at CPS locations during school hours

Source: Chicago Police Department

To double-check all this, I recently talked to Eugene Roy.  These days, he’s the commander of youth investigations for the Chicago police. I asked if he thinks arrests at public school during school hours are mostly for school-related incidents. His answer was neat and tidy -- just like the top of his desk:

“Yes, that’s correct,” Roy said.   

Back in my day, kids didn’t get arrested at school. Not very much anyhow. So how did we get to this place?

Commander Roy says that back in the eighties and nineties there was a spike in youth crime, not only here, but all across the country.

“People became scared of crime and a lot of the answers to that were zero tolerance,” he explained.  “Lock everybody up, put everybody in jail. We’ve learned that that doesn’t always work. And now we’re continuing our voyage along this arc of the pendulum and we’re getting to a place now where we realize that criminalizing minor disruptive and inappropriate behavior is not the way to go.” 

For years, two police officers have worked full-time at every Chicago public high school. Some critics say that police presence itself enhances the possibility for arrest, and makes unnecessary arrests more likely.

But most of the teachers I’ve talked to and plenty of students, truly appreciate that the police are there. It makes them feel safe, they tell me. Allows learning to move forward, even after a serious disruption.

To get to the underbelly of at-school arrests, there’s this CPS document you might want to check out. It’s called the Student Code of Conduct and it outlines the student misbehavior for which a school must call police and the student infractions for which it’s optional to contact police.

I want to make this clear. Just because the police are called -- that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an arrest. First there has to be probable cause. That means there’s enough facts and evidence to convince a reasonable person that a crime has been committed.

Who decides if there’s probable cause? That would be the police officer. But the existence of probable cause doesn’t necessarily mean there’ll be an arrest. Because the officer may use discretion to decide if the arrest is warranted. And, of course, that’s where controversy can kick up, because a lot of people think that police discretion is not fairly applied.

Here’s another thing. Once probable cause is established, if a person in a position of authority ( like a principal or a teacher) requests that a student be arrested, as far as I can tell, in most cases, CPD will comply with that request.

A separate but related concern is what happens when young people are arrested at school. There’s a common misconception that if a kid’s taken to the police station and parents come to pick him up, that’s the end of it.

Hardly. That kid is photographed, and fingerprints are taken. An arrest record is generated – a record that sticks with the person for a long time, unless it’s formally expunged. And, as we are reporting this week, it’s not so easy to get a juvenile record expunged.

I wish more teachers and principals understood this. I’ve talked with several who don’t. 

One teacher told me that once a kid is taken to the police station, their parents pick them up and “they’re never booked, you know.” 

That’s not right, I told her. That really is an arrest. Those kids really do end up with an arrest record.

Now she understands, she says, why some people push for young people to be arrested for only for the most serious infractions.

But this same teacher also told me, arrest record or not, certain offenses require arrest: “If somebody assaults me, I’m still gonna have ‘em arrested. Okay? That’s just it. Can you talk me out of it? No. Because this person assaulted me.  And I am not goin’ to work to get assaulted. That’s just not happening.”

Thousands of kids are arrested each year at Chicago Public Schools. Some of those arrests are for incredibly serious offenses like bringing a weapon to school -- or brutal fights that lead to serious injuries.

But many of those arrests are for relatively minor offenses too.

Advocates say the state legislature ought to step in, and make it a lot easier for people to expunge, or clear, their juvenile records. Especially if the arrest never resulted in a court date and the kid was never  found guilty ( “adjudicated delinquent”  as they call it in juvenile court ) of anything.

Meanwhile, if you want to expunge your juvenile record(s) now, below you’ll find a link to two websites that can help walk you through the steps. Warning: It’s not so easy. Good luck with that.

Office of the State Appellate Defender

Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County

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