Vote Leaves Black Students Far More Likely To Have Police In School Than Other Teens

Almost all the city’s majority-Black schools voted this summer to keep police. The 15 of the 17 schools that will have them removed are mostly Latino or mixed.

SRO
After voting this summer, 17 Chicago schools will no longer have police in their buildings. Sebastian Hidalgo / WBEZ
SRO
After voting this summer, 17 Chicago schools will no longer have police in their buildings. Sebastian Hidalgo / WBEZ

Vote Leaves Black Students Far More Likely To Have Police In School Than Other Teens

Almost all the city’s majority-Black schools voted this summer to keep police. The 15 of the 17 schools that will have them removed are mostly Latino or mixed.

This story was updated Monday, Aug. 17 with the final tally of Chicago Public Schools that will keep police officers in schools.

After weeks of voting by elected school councils on whether to keep police in schools, only about 24% of 72 Chicago public schools with officers will be removed, leaving the vast majority of school police officers in place after a summer of intense protests advocating for their removal.

The Board of Education considered ending the school resource officer program in June, but the measure was narrowly defeated. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the schools chief and some board members said the decision should be left up to local councils, made up of parents, teachers and community members.

Local School Councils had until Friday to vote. CPS determined that two of the schools that voted to keep SROs — Kelly and Prosser — did not have a majority of members present and therefore the vote to retain was not valid. CPS officials informed Kelly that it would pull its school police. Prosser has asked to take a re-vote, which CPS will allow.

The school board plans to vote on a new, less expensive police contract on Aug. 26.

But youth activists and legal experts say there’s a troubling aspect to leaving the decision up to local school councils.

They are proud of the victories they scored at the 17 schools that rejected police. Yet only two of the schools are mostly Black. One of them is Phillips High School, located in Bronzeville on the South Side with about 700 students. It is one of six high schools without a functioning LSC in which CPS made the decision after consulting with the community. The other is Uplift, a school of about 130 students in Uptown on the North Side.

All the other schools that spurned police officers are majority Latino or have a diverse student body.

The result: The percentage of white and Latino students at schools with police officers will drop significantly in the coming school year. Now, about 48% of white students and 54% of Latino students at traditional city high schools will go to schools with police.

Meanwhile, about 73% of Black students will continue to be at schools with police. (The school district’s SRO program does not include charter schools.) Last school year, about 85% of students — regardless of race — went to a school with police officers.

Alycia Kamil is one of the youth activists who spent much of the summer at rallies calling for the defunding of police and for them to be removed from schools.

She called the vote tallies disheartening. Kamil graduated last year from Kenwood Academy, a school where 87% of the students and the LSC unanimously voted to keep SROs.

“If [the police] are still going to be in schools with the people that they target the most, that they abuse the most, then there isn’t a win for the immediate marginalized group that is most affected by the issue,” she said.

Some would argue the votes make sense because most predominantly Black schools are in poor neighborhoods that often deal with violence. These schools need police officers more than others, said Chicago Board of Education member Dwayne Truss at the June Board meeting. He lives in Austin on the West Side.

“We have communities under siege by gun violence, and it is not just about what is inside the schools. It is about what is outside the schools,” he said. “In our schools that have school resource officers and need them, this helps create an environment of safety for the students that keeps them coming to schools.”

But lawyers from the ACLU of Illinois and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights say having police officers primarily in schools that serve Black students could be a problem for the school district. They said they have been watching this process as it has unfolded over the last two months.

The ACLU points to studies that show police in schools leads to more arrests for low-level offences that can often serve as a conduit to the school-to-prison pipeline. Also, the presence of police officers can affect student outcomes.

“The research shows students of color, and especially Black students, are less likely to say they feel safer with police in their school,” said Amy Meek, senior counsel for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “The research also shows that police encounters can cause stress, fear, trauma and anxiety for Black and brown students, and that can erode mental health and school performance for Black students.”

The city, school district and Police Department cannot have policies that harm one group more than another, said Karen Sheley, who is the director of the police policies project for the ACLU of Illinois.

“This is really troubling,” she said. Even prior to these LSC decisions, she was concerned about data showing that police notifications by schools disproportionately involved Black students with disabilities.

Meek added the school district did not offer to give schools that voted out police officers the money to spend elsewhere.

“I think we would expect to see that schools that have more resources would vote to eliminate SROS, because they have other alternative services that they can use,” she said. “Whereas schools that have fewer resources, schools that are underinvested, they are really choosing between having [these] additional programs and people and having no one there at all.”

The lack of resources was a factor at Simeon High School. The LSC at the South Side high school that serves all Black students voted to keep their officers on Wednesday. One staff member who urged the council to retain the officers said the school of more than 1,400 students had been trying to get a full-time social worker for years, but has yet to get one.

“I don’t think we should take them out until we have something else in place,” she said.

Principal Trista Harper also insisted police officers be retained. When she needs the assistance of police officers, she said she doesn’t just want to call 911.

“We don’t know who is going to come to the building,” she said. “They may not have any training. They may not know our students. They may not like our students. … That makes me uncomfortable.”

Also, she said police are needed because the neighborhood is dangerous.

“Do we know that there is a war zone going on around the corner from the school?” she said. “I am paranoid about that.”

Sarah Karp is a reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.