After students returned this fall to in-person instruction at Curie Metro High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, some of them noticed a big change in the school’s culture.
The adults are more willing to hear them out when there is conflict, they say. And there’s more support available for students who are struggling.
“[The school environment] is better,” senior Turrant Johnson said during a visit to the school last week. “It’s more civilized and more controlled.”
Junior Samantha Marquez, remembers several fights breaking out in one day at the beginning of the year. But the adults, she said, quickly stepped in to talk to the students and de-escalate the situation. “I really appreciate that our teachers and administrators are very sympathetic, knowing that we’re still going through a very harsh pandemic.”
Curie hasn’t always been this way. The school, which enrolls more than 3,000 students, once dealt with students’ discipline issues in a more punitive way.
“When I first arrived here we had many arrests and the police officers, they escalated situations,” said Michael Morris, who has been a security guard at Curie school for about 10 years.
Curie’s elected Local School Council voted to remove police in the summer of 2020 with support from students and parents. Curie is among about 50 Chicago public high schools that voted to remove one or both police officers stationed in their schools in the last year and a half, arguing a punitive approach to student discipline does not create a safe learning environment.
For Curie, removing the police was one step in a process to try to change the school culture. The transition started about six years ago as more staff decided the police presence was hurting the school and the students, many who come from nearby communities, including areas that struggle with violence.
“I would look out the door and [I would see] students being walked out of the building by police in handcuffs,” said Homero Penuelas, who is in his first year as principal at Curie. Before that, he was an assistant principal and a teacher.
Since then, Curie officials have been putting more weight on social-emotional support and improving relationships between students and staff.
The goal, Penuelas said, is to figure out how to “build those relationships with students, so it’s more than just disciplinarians?”
Curie has about 10 counselors, a climate and culture coordinator, social workers and partnerships with outside groups. This year, Penuelas said Curie used federal COVID-19 relief to help fund the partnerships and CPS allocated the school an extra counselor and social worker this year because of hardships faced during the pandemic. Schools that voted this year to remove officers came up with alternative safety plans and CPS, in exchange for the officers, gave them money to pay for more resources, such as restorative justice coordinators.
At Curie, some staff had to be convinced that calling the police on students was not the right approach, Penuelas said. The school tried out a different approach first before police were removed: officers were cleared from the hallways and asked to stay in their office.
“Once we removed that, our numbers as far as the altercations and hallway disturbances, all those numbers dropped,” Morris said.
The school’s 14 security guards were trained how to talk to students, ask the right questions. They are now the first line of support.
“Our job and our goal is to resolve the matter, to find out why the students are angry. What happened? And how can I help?” Morris said.
Principal Penuelas said getting staff buy-in and reconnecting with students after remote learning is challenging, despite the changes they’re seeing so far. Morris says listening and being patient helped him find his way.
“I try to respect the students because that’s the thing that I want back,” he said. “When the respect factor is there, you’re going to have way less problems.”