Chicago Board of Education members on Wednesday will consider ending the practice of stationing police in schools, though Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson have publicly said they want the program to continue.
This sets the stage for a possible showdown between Lightfoot’s hand-picked board and school district leaders, who she also appoints. But sources say the motion to pull police from schools is spearheaded by only two members and it will be an uphill battle to get it approved.
Jackson held a press conference Monday morning to defend keeping police in schools. Standing with three high school principals and a well-known pastor, Jackson said she is responsible for keeping students safe and believes police officers, called school resource officers, help do that.
“We all want change,” she said. “But we want to do the right things. We don’t want to just do cosmetic changes or quick changes that end up creating more problems and make our communities and schools less safe.”
Youth activists and others have long demanded that police be removed from schools, but the calls intensified in the wake of the George Floyd killing in police custody and subsequent protests. The Chicago Teachers Union and youth groups also are planning to protest on Wednesday outside of CPS headquarters, though the board meeting will be held virtually.
Lightfoot picks the board members. But, unlike most boards of the past, some members have shown a willingness to go against the wishes of the administration and Lightfoot. The members include an historian, a community activist from the West Side and the board president, who is a former state senator with a long history of being progressive on education issues.
It is unclear how board members will vote, but last year only board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, the historian, voted against approving the contract. The fact that the motion to remove police is on the board of education meeting agenda is highly unusual. It is almost unheard of for an item to appear that isn’t backed by the school district leadership and the mayor.
Board member Dwayne Truss said he is unsure how he will vote, but that he generally believes, like Lightfoot and Jackson, that the decision should stay in the hands of the local school council.
“Every school is different, every community is different,” he said. Truss, a community activist from Austin on the West Side, pointed out the violence in his neighborhood this weekend. A three-year-old and a student from a local elementary school were killed. “The reality is that this is a different community,” he said. “What if a student gets into it with someone else?”
Last year was the first year that school councils had that ability and, according to CPS, all voted to keep the police officers.
Currently, 72 of 93 traditional high schools have two police officers assigned to them. Also, there’s a team of police officers that travel between elementary schools.
Jackson said the LSCs will have an opportunity to vote again this summer and that she is committed to giving them a “toolkit” of information beforehand. In addition, Jackson said she is committed to making sure police officers who’ve been subject to a lot of citizen complaints aren’t assigned to schools.
“Not everyone should be around children, and so when we see that is the case, they shouldn’t be in our schools.” she said.
Last year, the school district paid $33 million to the Police Department for the officers time. The contract expires in August. Jackson also made it clear that if councils choose to remove officers from their schools, they won’t be able to replace them with other types of staff. Instead, any savings will go back into the central coffers and will be used to balance the budget, which Jackson noted she is currently trying to do.
Jackson pushed back on the idea that if CPS did not have a school resource officer program, it could put more money into social workers or counselors.
“I am uncomfortable with conflating the SRO and the counseling role,” she said. “We spend tens of millions on counseling, social-emotional support for our students, and we will continue to do that because it is the right thing to do. That decision is separate from why we need to have an SRO program in our district.”
The principals said the school resource officers are essential to their schools.
Myron Hester, principal of Julian High School on the far South Side, said on several occasions the police officers were able to help keep students safe from outsiders.
“There was a gentleman messing with our student on their way home and in the morning, so we coordinated together,” he said. “Me and my assistant principal, we walked down to the gas station and our SROs came with us. We were able to identify the man messing with our students. It is a partnership that we have with the police and with our schools.”
Other principals said the police officers become role models to students and lead classes on things like human trafficking.
Many students complain, however, that seeing police officers with their guns when they enter schools in the morning makes them feel unwelcome and less safe.
Jackson acknowledged that trust is a big issue between police officers and students, especially Black students. However, she said having them in the schools to build relationships is better than removing them.
“I don’t think creating a bigger divide between the two groups is the right approach,” Jackson said.