In a tight vote, the Chicago Board of Education voted on Wednesday to continue the controversial practice of assigning nearly 200 police officers to city schools.
The 4-to-3 vote came after a lengthy and intense discussion, with students, parents, aldermen and others speaking out on both sides of the issue. The majority spoke in favor of ending the Chicago Police Department program.
But in the end, the majority of the board members said they worried about what would happen if they pulled police.
“Safety is of the utmost concern,” said Board President Miguel del Valle before voting to continue the police-in-schools program.
However, the school district’s $33 million contract with the Police Department expires in August. That means board members must vote again on continuing the program either at the July or August board meeting. One board member, Sendhil Revuluri, indicated that his vote may change if the contract is not drastically changed.
Seventy-two of 93 traditional high schools have police assigned to them, and another 48 officers go between various elementary schools.
Wednesday’s vote was highly unusual because the mayor has publicly said she wanted to retain the program and she handpicks the board members. It’s unheard of for the board to consider a motion that doesn’t have the backing of the mayor and the school district leadership.
But the charge to remove police was led by board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She argued, despite changes to the program in recent years, that irrefutable evidence that shows having police in schools disproportionately hurts Black and Latino students. In voting to end the program she was joined by former principal Amy Rome and Luisiana Melendez, a professor at the Erikson Institute.
The meeting was held virtually, but outside the downtown headquarters of the school district, several hundred protesters rallied after parading through the Loop calling for police to be removed. In the morning, a few dozen mostly Chicago Public Schools teenagers gathered in front of the home of Board President del Valle to urge him to remove the police. Del Valle told them he planned to vote to continue the police-in-schools program. A few of those teens called into the board meeting to call for an end to the program.
“CPD shouldn’t be in CPS and the contract should be ended,” said Marlenne Garcia, a recent graduate of Hancock College Prep. “The $33 million should be given back to our communities, toward schools and things that we actually need and would benefit us, instead of threatening us every day.”
Many of the teenagers who have been at the forefront of fighting to remove police expressed extreme disappointment. Several youth groups, including VOYCE, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and GoodKids, MadCity have for years opposed the presence of police officers in schools.
The Chicago Teachers Union also has been pushing for years to remove police from schools. The union issued a statement of outrage after the vote, saying the outcome showed why Chicago needs an elected rather than appointed school board.
Demands for police to be removed from schools ramped in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests that centered around ending police brutality and disinvesting in police.
Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland have all decided to end police-in-school programs in response to the recent uprisings.
The mayor and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson argued in favor of police in schools, with Jackson saying the decision to keep or remove police should be left to elected local school councils at individual schools. CPS says all LSCs voted last year in favor of keeping police, and Jackson is planning to have them vote again in August.
At the meeting, CPS Chief of Safety and Security Jadine Chou presented a survey of views on police in the schools. It showed that students, parents, teachers and administrators generally had positive feelings about the officers, but that they don’t think they have done enough to build relationships in the schools. The views of community members were far more negative toward the officers.
The board members who sided with Lightfoot and Jackson said they agreed that elected local school councils, not the board of education, should have the power to decide whether the police should be placed in schools.
Board member Dwayne Truss said his West Side community is wracked with violence and he sees police in schools as a way to protect students. He said he worries that without police, some will seize the opportunity to go after their rivals in school. “Every community is different,” he said.
Board member Lucino Sotelo said he went to a high school that had four gangs. He said a lot of students dropped out of that high school because they didn’t feel safe. He said he was listening to the voices of those dropouts who are often unheard.
“When it comes to the hierarchy of needs, safety is at the top,” said Sotelo, who said he worried that if police were pulled from schools, more students would drop out.
Jackson also argued police officers in schools can be a bridge between the police and Black students who often have a deep distrust of police. She said police officers in schools can be role models and help teach about how to safely engage with officers.
She and Chou also noted the recent changes to the program, including a new agreement between the school district and the department that dictates how officers are to be selected, trained and their roles and responsibilities. However, Jackson did note more could be done to better screen officers and get the right people in the schools.
“Our hearts and minds are in the same place,” Chou said. “We don’t want the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Many of those calling for an end to the program wanted to see the money used to pay the Chicago Police Department go for things like crisis counseling and social workers. But Jackson made it clear earlier this week that should the program go away, she will use the savings to help balance the budget.
The vote comes after years of issues with the police-in-school program in Chicago Public Schools. It started in 1991 when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley put two uniformed police officers in high schools as a way to show he was dealing with out-of-control gun violence, even though the worst situations did not happen in schools, according to South Side Weekly. He also installed metal detectors.
At times, the presence of police in schools has been used as a way to transfer money from the school district to the Police Department to fill its budget hole. In some years, police have been provided as an in-kind service and in one year, the school district was back-charged $80 million.
And accountability has been an issue. The city of Chicago inspector general issued a scathing report in 2018 that took issue with the Police Department for not having standard criteria for selecting officers assigned to schools. The department couldn’t even provide an accurate list of the names of school police officers.
Recent changes to the police-in-school program were also called on in a consent decree overseen by a federal judge that lays out reforms for the department. But last week, a monitor found the Police Department did not fulfill two key requirements: that only those with no or minimal disciplinary marks on their record are assigned to schools and that they receive extra training so they can serve more as counselors and know how to better interact with students.
Reporter Adriana Cardona-Maguigad contributed to this story.