As cops leave Chicago public schools, staff move fitfully toward a new model of helping students

The departure is part of a broad effort to move away from suspensions and arrests. But replacing police in schools has proven to be complicated.

Gage Park High School on Chicago's Southwest Side has long had a focus on conflict resolution. That made for a relatively smooth transition after the school voted to remove one of its two police officers last year. “We’ve come a long way,” the principal said. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
Gage Park High School on Chicago's Southwest Side has long had a focus on conflict resolution. That made for a relatively smooth transition after the school voted to remove one of its two police officers last year. “We’ve come a long way,” the principal said. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

As cops leave Chicago public schools, staff move fitfully toward a new model of helping students

The departure is part of a broad effort to move away from suspensions and arrests. But replacing police in schools has proven to be complicated.

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The uniformed Chicago police officer who works at Gage Park High School sits in an office most days with nothing to do. He’s bored so often that he recently talked to the principal about coaching baseball to fill his time. Students rarely see him in the hallways. And staff don’t think about asking him to intervene in incidents.

Hyde Park Academy High School’s officer helps monitor arrival and dismissal of students, making sure no outsiders are around to make trouble. He gives advice to students and parents about police matters. But he no longer responds to most in-school incidents, even serious ones.

At Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, there are no police officers in the sprawling building in the South Side’s Ashburn neighborhood. The principal wants all teachers and staff to focus on de-escalating violence and healing. He recommended removing officers because he wasn’t sure they were onboard with his vision.

In the past two years, the number of officers assigned to work inside Chicago schools has been cut by a third and their role drastically scaled back. The school district trimmed its payments to the Chicago Police Department — still a controversial practice in itself — from $33 million in 2020 to $11 million this year. And schools shifted some $3.2 million back to policing alternatives such as deans, security guards and mental health programs.

Reducing police in schools is part of a complicated, emotional and messy effort to change the response to student behavior from punitive to restorative — to move from arrests and suspensions to conversations and peace circles.

It’s in response to longtime complaints by students and community activists that Black and Latino children are overly policed for routine disagreements and teenage behavior, sending kids from the classroom to the criminal justice system, which research has shown leads to worse educational and life outcomes. Advocates have also said police don’t know how to handle the needs of students in special education and shouldn’t be the ones to respond to a student in crisis.

The cries to remove cops from schools reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2020 as racial justice protests swept the city and nation, and activists held rallies outside Chicago Board of Education members’ houses calling for an end to the school system’s contract with CPD.

At some schools, the shift has been years in the making. At others, it’s a work in progress. The broad effect has been difficult to measure.

A sign outside Gage Park High School’s Peace Room, where students go to decompress and resolve conflicts. Chicago Sun-Times

High schools called police on their students 351 times the first semester this school year, according to CPS data newly released to the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ. That’s a 38% decrease from the first semester of the 2019-20 school year, the last full in-person period before the pandemic.

Yet that tracks a downward trend that was already playing out over the past decade.

“What is notable is the mindset shift,” says Jadine Chou, the school system’s safety and security chief. “Across the board, based on what I’ve observed, we are seeing schools wanting to support our young people more than ever.”

But Chou admits the transition has been rocky. Students returned to buildings after a year and a half of remote school due to the pandemic. Many students are grappling with stress and trauma, and educators in Chicago and nationwide have noted a marked increase in behavioral outbursts as kids readjust to in-person schooling. Student suspensions in high schools are up and some schools say they are desperate for more staff. The educators already in place are drained themselves.

Antonio Ross, principal of Hyde Park High School, said educators have to focus on stemming problems before they grow into major conflicts. And paying attention to all these issues takes time and energy.

“Nothing is too small to address,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it is silly to you as an adult. She’s 14 and she’s distraught. You have to understand and respect every student’s feelings and that is the time consuming part. It is exhausting but it is necessary.”

Principal Antonio Ross, left, and Dean La Troy Farrow at Hyde Park Academy High School, which has removed one police officer. Anthony Vazquez / Chicago Sun-Times

Police notifications drop

The full extent of the post-pandemic school policing landscape is still unclear because CPS has released limited data for this school year. For example, the district has only shared the total number of first-semester police notifications and out-of-school suspensions at high schools, while elementary school numbers remain unavailable.

At CPS, the term police notifications refers to any time a school’s administration contacts the police to respond to a student disciplinary incident, which can lead to “police actions such as arrest.” The district does not provide data on how many of its students are arrested at schools.

CPS has also only produced school-level police notification data from six buildings — four requested by the Sun-Times and WBEZ and two the district chose to highlight. Officials have so far declined to produce data from all individual schools, even for the fall semester that ended in January.

That extensive data is expected to be released later in the summer and would help identify more specific changes, such as trends in schools that have voted to remove their officers over the past couple years versus those that kept their cops.

In a 2020 analysis of CPS data, the Sun-Times found students who attended a high school that had a Chicago officer stationed inside were four times more likely to have the police called on them than kids at high schools that didn’t have in-house cops.

And WBEZ found more schools serving majority Black students held onto their officers than those serving Latino and white students. Starting in 2020, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials asked local school councils to decide whether to keep their officers rather than issue a blanket removal of school cops. CPS says 19 high schools continue to have two full-time officers and 22 have one. There are 91 district-run high schools.

Schools that kept one or both officers had until Wednesday to decide if they wanted to scale back next year, but schools cannot add cops. The district is still tallying the votes.

What’s clear, however, is the district had already cut down its policing of students before schools started removing their officers in 2020. In the fall of 2013, there were 1,622 calls from schools to police. That was down to 566 the fall of 2019 and 351 this past fall.

Chou said the school district’s work with principals and teachers to show alternative ways to improve behavior is part of the reason why the pandemic didn’t lead to more police calls.

“Teachers and administrators have worked very hard over the last several years to build those relationships, which made them more resilient coming back into the school,” she said. “So we’re very grateful for that hard work, we’re very fortunate that we had that runway leading into the pandemic.”

The Peace Room at Gage Park High School. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

But for the schools that had not already started implementing restorative practices, the transition was rocky.

Schurz High School, a predominantly Latino school in Irving Park on the Northwest Side, logged the most calls to police — both in total numbers and adjusted for enrollment — in the 2018-19 year, the last full year before the pandemic. Officers intervened with students at Schurz 229 times that year.

Police calls at Schurz plummeted to two in the fall of 2019 but have since risen to 21 notifications this past fall semester, according to CPS data. That’s even after the school removed both its cops last year, receiving $150,000 in return for mental health programming, a new social worker and a restorative justice coordinator.

Schurz teacher David Marshall said part of the reason he voted along with other LSC members to remove both police officers was the promise of extra mental health support for students. But he said that hasn’t really panned out.

The school was not able to hire a new social worker until the winter. And there restorative justice coordinator brought on last summer didn’t have much time to develop a program before classes began. This spring, she decided to leave the school.

“We only had a talking circle like once this year in a meaningful way,” Marshall said. “And we haven’t had the curriculum or time to teach the students how to do it. It has been piecemeal.”

Marshall said the school was put on lockdown once this year based on a social media gun rumor and he heard some teachers complain about not having police officers around.

Still, he said he feels as though removing the officers was the right decision. Students, he said, often feel like officers are more threatening than helpful and the ones in the building previously didn’t build strong relationships with students.

“Our school has a little office for the police officers and the only time you would really see them is walking through the hall with a student in handcuffs,” he said.

At Farragut Career Academy High School in Little Village, the absence of police officers in the building didn’t result in fewer police calls. The police were called on students seven times this past fall — more than the 2017-18 through 2019-20 school years combined.

Cindy Rivera, the mother of a junior at Farragut, believes social workers should help address the root cause of a dispute, but she still thinks police should be in schools to provide some level of security because “there is no limit anymore” to violent behavior: “People surpassed the limits now. Everything escalates from, ‘Oh, I don’t like you, or you looked at me wrong, so I’m going to shoot you.’ It shouldn’t be that way.’

“It benefits not only the students but the staff,” Rivera said. “If they’re patrolling out in the streets they can patrol in the schools.”

More than just getting rid of cops

School leaders attribute the drop in police notifications to two factors: Police are not as readily available, and the school district adopted a policy last summer that drastically limited when they should be called.

Chou said the policy is “much more explicit” than in the past that the only scenarios that may require police involvement are “where there’s an imminent safety threat or a true crime has been committed.”

During fights, schools need to try de-escalating first. Illegal behavior, according to the updated code of conduct, should be considered in the context of whether the student has special needs, has been traumatized or whether the behavior has caused harm or physical injury to others.

Ross, the Hyde Park principal, said, “You can’t call [the police] for anything now.”

“We used to kind of follow the model, ‘if you bring drugs on campus, that’s a police issue.’ We gave it to police officers, and they kind of dealt with it,” he said. “Now, it’s confiscation and a conversation.”

A gun brought to school is the only thing that would automatically bring in the school’s remaining police officer, Ross said.

There hasn’t been much difference in school operations since Hyde Park’s LSC voted last year to remove one officer, he added. But since the change, there has been a drop in police notifications from 12 during the first semester of the 2019-20 school year to zero the first semester this year. He said the change in policy really took calling the police off the table.

“It is very, very narrow,” he said. “What it did for us is really forced us to make sure that we are doing things the right way, that the systems that we have in place are really working.”

This policy change was evident in a recent example of how Lincoln Park High School approached a student who threatened to shoot a teacher. Rather than have him arrested, the school determined there was no imminent threat and offered him support.

“The point of this, whenever we do our approach to safety, we know it’s important to support our young people, no matter what they’re going through,” Chou said, defending the response in Lincoln Park.

“Merely arresting a student is not getting to the root of the issue.”

A focus on restorative justice

Some principals have long been committed to getting at the root causes of student behavior.

Gage Park High School on the Southwest Side has a peace room where students can take time to decompress.

A counselor is available to chat. Colorful murals fill the walls. Reflection worksheets ask students to use emojis to represent how they felt before and after their stop by the room. They’re also asked whether they learned new ways to deal with their feelings, and if they could identify their own role in a conflict.

“If something is bothering us, we come here and talk about it … so the situation won’t escalate,” said Kierra Richie, a junior at Gage Park.

That conflict resolution has been a key element of the school’s approach for the past five years, Principal Tamika Ball said, long before the local school council voted last year to remove one of its two officers. But the $45,000 the school received in exchange for removing the cop helped expand Gage Park’s partnership with a local organization, New Root, that provides a clinician and trains staff on supporting students in crisis.

“We see that there’s [underlying] things causing these reactions,” Ball said. “We can then refer them to the social worker or school counselor or our external partners.”

A decade ago, when the district had a zero tolerance policy, Gage Park called the cops on their own students 149 times in a single school year, district records show. Those calls have plummeted since, and the first semester this school year that number was down to zero.

“We’ve come a long way,” Ball said. “Anyone that lives in Chicago knows historically what Gage Park used to be like.

“I pride myself in saying I’ve made this a peaceful school. If I went down to zero [officers] nothing’s going to change because we have the practices in place and we have the staff in place. We have created the school culture.”

Tamika Ball, principal of Gage Park High School, talks to counselor Andrea Allen-Moore. ‘I pride myself in saying I’ve made this a peaceful school,’ Ball said. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

But not all schools had Gage Park’s foundation before they removed their officers and the pandemic upended their students’ lives.

La Troy Farrow, who is in charge of climate and culture at Hyde Park Academy, said the administration has learned valuable lessons during this adjustment.

In the past, they might have shrugged off “silliness” like a girl bumping another in the hallway and instigating a fight. But their approach to restorative practices means they can’t let those disputes fester.

“My job is breaking down problems and trying to get young people to see things through a different angle,” Farrow said. “There’s nothing more rewarding than having a student walk into your office and then, through a peace circle or a restorative conversation, they walk out with a different perspective.”

Why some still feel safer with officers

A national debate about school cops has restarted since the Uvalde, Texas, elementary school massacre last month in which a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers. Some conservative lawmakers have advocated for beefing up school security and adding armed officers to schools in lieu of legislation curbing access to guns. But the slow and ineffective police response in Uvalde has shown school cops can only do so much in that scenario.

At least one officer’s presence has made many communities feel a sense of security, though.

Esdaini Lopez, a junior and a student representative on the Gage Park Local School Council, said safety from outside threats was on her mind when the LSC voted recently to retain its single officer for next fall. She said her classmates were also talking about it.

“They said they feel safe knowing somebody’s here if something happens,” Lopez said. “We have somebody [that’s] part of the school that’s here to protect us.”

Esdaini Lopez, 17, and Kierra Richie, 17, are students at Gage Park High School. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

Ross, the Hyde Park principal, said he doesn’t foresee giving up his school’s second officer, who serves as a resource to help students and parents on issues they face outside of school.

“It’s a deterrent,” Ross said. “He has a direct line to the other officers in the area they can get here very quickly, if we need them.”

Jermal Ray, who graduated from Curie High School this month, said he supports the school’s removal of both officers. But he wants police close by.

Earlier this month a student brought a gun to Curie. “Maybe they can just surround the school so if they see someone suspicious they can stop them before they enter,” he said. Ray said he thinks parents would feel safer if police were around.

Octavio Chavez, a junior at Farragut, said the removal of cops has been noticeable since his freshman year, the one cut short by the pandemic. He said police could offer a security presence at the door in case someone brings a weapon: “Just in case somebody comes in the school, they’re right there. It does make me feel safer, I guess.”

But cops would only detect a threat once the person was inside and might not quickly stop them, he added.

Either way, Chavez said, “the school runs the same way with or without them.”

Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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