Fewer kids are getting arrested in Chicago Public Schools, but is the decline happening fast enough?
Police Department numbers analyzed by WBEZ show that in 2014 there were 3,836 overall arrests at schools. In 2015, that number dropped by 25 percent to 2,859.
Some arrests may well be warranted but in the past students have been arrested for petty “offenses” like drawing on desks or getting in shoving matches. When police are called those infractions, they can be charged as vandalism or battery.
Moving away from zero-tolerance
The decrease in arrests is a result of the district moving away from a zero-tolerance policy for discipline says Jadine Chou, the chief safety and security officer for CPS.
“We’ve moved more towards when there’s an issue, consequences that are much more instructional versus punitive,” she said.
She said the decreases over the past few years are a result of a 2012 change in the student code of conduct.
“If a student makes a mistake and engages in a misconduct, we seek to do interventions first. Once an intervention kicks in, what we find is that’s much more effective in helping the student to understand where they can make a better decision next time,” she said.
Chou said as a result, suspensions and expulsions are also on the decline. She’s hearing less about unnecessary arrests, but they still happen.
Arrests still happen
Antonio Magitt is a junior at Roosevelt High School on the city’s Northwest Side. He had his first run-in with police when he was in middle school. He didn’t like his living situation at the time—a shared one bedroom apartment with his mom, her boyfriend and his sister. He was also having a hard time figuring out his place in school. He said he felt depressed and angry inside.
“I didn’t know how to control it. So I would just go to school and talk back to my teachers, get into fights, not pay attention, not do my work,” he said.
One day, Magitt wasn’t feeling well and he was headed to the principal’s office. He said a school officer stopped him to talk, but Magitt said he didn’t want to and continued on. He said the officer followed him and then grabbed his arm to stop him. Magitt said he pulled away, but the officer took his arm again. This time, Magitt said he “blacked out” and started hitting the officer. He was arrested, expelled and sent to an alternative school. This was before CPS changed its policy.
Now he is in high school and things are much better, he said. He’s living with his grandmother on the West Side. He has control over his feelings, he’s improving academically and he’s engaging in advocacy work. But there was an incident this past October that he felt was unwarranted. A group of more than 100 students at Roosevelt walked out of class in protest of school budget cuts. Additional police were there to manage the crowd.
“I wasn’t doing anything else. I was doing exactly what a hundred plus other students were doing, and they chose to only arrest me,” he said.
Magitt was arrested and charged with interference of a public institute of education, resisting arrest and battery. He said if he wasn’t put up against a table and handcuffed, the last two charges would not have followed. This was after CPS changed its policy when Chou said punitive discipline was taking a back seat to more restorative responses.
When notifications are made
Roosevelt school officials did not respond to requests for a comment on the situation, but the police said an official “notification” was made because Magitt’s actions were allegedly a safety concern.
CPS policy says administrators are instructed to call the police only in emergency situations or to notify police of a criminal act. CPS calls this police notifications. According to CPS records, police notifications have also been steadily declining since the 2012-2013 academic year when notifications totaled 5,189. It’s down to 4,169 for the 2014-2015 academic year. Notifications don’t necessarily result in arrests, but in Magitt’s case, it did.
Magitt appeared before a judge in March and all the charges were dropped except for battery. The judge saw Magitt’s case as one of civil disobedience and sentenced him to 18 months of supervision with the possibility to end the term early for good behavior and to remove the charge completely from his record. His probation officer says Magitt’s on his way to erasing the incident.
CPS put in place restorative conversations with Magitt following the incident, but Magitt questions why a counselor or a dean of students couldn’t have handled last fall’s situation, rather than a police officer. He’s part of a youth-led organization called Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE. They’re pushing for legislation in Springfield that would limit school-based arrests to last resorts or serious safety concerns, like a student bringing a firearm to school.
CPS making strides
CPS has been conducting trainings for administrators and staff in how to manage classrooms and de-escalate situations. Chou says uniformed officers that work in schools have special training on how to handle students.
There’s also been a reduction in the number of police stationed in schools. In 2012, uniformed officers were assigned to all CPS high schools. This year, that’s been reduced to 75 of the 95 non-chartered high schools.
“There’s the letter of the code of conduct and there’s the spirit of the code of conduct. The spirit of the code of conduct says we want all of our young people to be successful,” Chou said. “ And by charging them for something that’s not technically a criminal act is hurting, not only the young person, but really the mission of what Chicago Public Schools is trying to achieve.”
But there’s still room to interpret what could be considered a criminal act. In regards to Magitt’s case, Chou says in situations where students feel mistreated, they need to report it, and it will be investigated. She says the district takes its own proactive measures in identifying discrepancies.
“When we see a school that may have a higher number of disciplinary consequences, particularly when it comes to CPD notification or out of school suspensions, we dig deeper. We partner with our colleagues in the Office of Social and Emotional Learning to understand what training has this school received in this area,” Chou said.
Advocacy groups like POWER PAC are working with CPS to push forward measures related to discipline in CPS. Lynn Morton is a founding member of the group that runs “peace centers” in a few schools and neighborhoods. That’s where students caught up in a conflict can get counseling and work out their issues with others. Morton’s seen the difference it’s made with kids who have emotional troubles, particularly those who come from a difficult home life.
Morton knows some police can be supportive of restorative practices, but she thinks they shouldn’t be inside schools.
“You have the police outside, you have the police inside. You can’t even get into the building without going through a metal detector and the first thing I see is CPD. That’s a problem. You’ve already said to your children, to our young people that you’re going to do something. You’re going to screw up and we’re here to immediately take care of it,” she said.
Morton wants to have peace center type programs in every school instead of police to handle conflict. But she credits CPS for some improvements.
“I can’t pat CPS on the back for a lot of things, but I will for this. Jadine Chou has been really targeted in working with the police and dealing with the police and minimizing the interaction of the police within Chicago Public Schools. She’s been proactive in having training for security guards,” she said.
Morton added she’d like the district to move faster to change the culture within CPS.
Not just a Chicago issue
School-based arrests aren’t just an issue in Chicago. According to the U.S. Department of Education, of the 49 million students enrolled nationally during the 2011-2012 school year, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement. 92,000 were subject to school-based arrests.
The school-based arrest numbers are difficult to track since many school districts across the country don’t keep clear records, said Jim Freeman, the executive director for Grassroots Action Support Team and a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans
Freeman said administrators have become over-reliant on school resource officers (SROs). He said police presence has led to a re-contextualization of student behavior. Developmentally normal behavior is now seen in the context of criminal law.
“Among many harms, they have a profound alienating effect on students. They push them further away from their education, further away from the adults who are supposed to be caring for them and educating them, and closer to a future in the juvenile criminal justice system,” he said.
Freeman said there can be circumstances where police presence is necessary in schools, but he said the students and parents of the school need to play a major part in making the decision.
Chou’s heard the call many times to get police out of schools, but she said it’s not something that can happen in a snap. Plus, she said, some communities prefer it considering the number of non-students who get arrested at schools.
Her hope is that police stationed in schools can be seen as trusted figures in the building. CPS started a pilot program this year at ten schools where students and police meet regularly to build better relationships.
Chou knows there’s room for improvement and she wants to know about unnecessary disciplines. She said she will personally handle it.
“We want our schools to be welcoming. We want our schools to be nurturing. We don’t want them to feel like a police state. And so if that’s happening, I want that feedback so that we can look at it and fix it,” she said.
Susie An is a general assignment reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @soosieon.