Debate about the presence of officers in Chicago Public Schools has ramped up in the Chicago City Council and the Chicago Board of Education within the last several weeks, with an attempt late last month by one Board of Education member to cancel the presence of school resource officers in CPS buildings having narrowly failed and the City Council having shelved a proposed ordinance introduced last month that would take police out of Chicago schools.

During a 24 meeting, the Board of Education voted 4-3 against eliminating the city’s $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department that funds the school resource officers. Dwayne Truss, the Austin resident and only West Sider on the board, voted with the majority in opposition of the canceling the contract.

School board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland, who introduced the motion to cancel the contract, argued that the presence of officers in schools disproportionately hurt Black and Brown students.

“It is not enough to reform, to retrain, to make a kinder school-to-prison pipeline,” Todd-Breland said. “We must dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.  Today, we can say enough is enough.”

Other board members like Amy Rome and Luisiana Meléndez echoed Todd-Breland’s point, arguing that reforms to a deeply flawed school resource program, to say nothing of a police department where racism is entrenched, were not sufficient and that the best way forward would be to eliminate school resource officers from schools altogether.

But Truss argued that removing police officers from schools is a one-size-fits-all approach that wouldn’t work for most schools. He mentioned the shooting deaths of 3-year-old Mekhi James and 13-year-old Amaria Jones, who were killed in Austin last month.

Truss said that those murders “are a microcosm of the kind of violence our kids see,” adding that while he is “definitely pro-restorative practices” and supports bringing additional social and emotional resources into schools,” he nonetheless believes that local school councils should make the decision of keeping or axing school resource officers on their respective campuses — not the school board, which is the same position that Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson hold.

Truss added that the local school councils at three West Side Schools – Michele Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison St., Austin College & Career Academy High School, 231 N. Pine Ave., and Marshall High School. 3250 W. Adams St. — all want to keep their school resource officers.

Board Vice President Sendhil Revuluri, who also voted against canceling the $33 million contract — which pays for 200 school resource officers at 72 high schools in the city — said he wasn’t pleased with the militaristic language in the contract and wanted to see the language changed when the agreement comes up for renewal in August. The board is expected to vote on the contract renewal later this month.

City Council discussion

Last month, Ald. Roderick Sawyer introduced a proposal that would have eliminated the the officers in CPS schools. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), who chairs the Committee on Public Safety, sent the proposed ordinance was sent to the City Council’s Rules Committee, where it currently languishes.

On July 2, Taliaferro and Ald. Michael Scott (24th), who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Education, teamed up to hold a July 2 hearing on several reports on school resource officers drafted by the city’s Office of Inspector General.

Inspector General Joe Ferguson said that Chicago Public Schools has made some strides since his office released a report in September 2018, which outlined the fact that there was no formal agreement governing school resource officers in Chicago schools.

The report recommended the establishment of an SRO coordinator and the creation of an agreement between the police department and the schools that would outline officers’ roles and responsibilities, require training in deescalation, set up performance reviews and ban officers from any involvement in discipline students, among other things.

Since that report, Ferguson told aldermen during the July 2 hearing, the police and the school district have developed an agreement that includes training requirements and prohibits officers from enforcing discipline at schools. In addition, each local school council decides whether or not a school campus has school resource officers.

But there still is no SRO coordinator and it is still difficult for the public to track which police officers serve as school resource officers, Ferguson said. In addition, statistics suggest that Black students may be getting arrested in disproportionately high numbers.

Since 2015, out of all incidents where SROs used force, 81 percent involved Blacks and 14 percent involved Latinx people. And out of all arrests made on school grounds since January 2017, nearly 73 percent involved Blacks, Ferguson said.

He added that those numbers include all incidents that happened on school property, whether or not the school is actually open at the time, so it’s not clear how many of those incidents involved students

“Those numbers are not themselves [proof] of anything, but they are demonstrative, and they do feed the perception, and maybe the reality, that there’s racial disparity of outcomes of how we police schools,” Ferguson said.

Jadine Chou, the chief of safety and security for CPS, said during the July 2 hearing that her employer has made several improvements, including the fact that principals now have “the ability to participate in the [SRO] selection process.” 

She pointed to the fact that, since the last school year, all complaints against SROs have been handled the same way as complaints against any other police officer — through the Civilian Office of Police Accountability. And she argued that local school councils serve as a good representation of the community, since they include teachers, parents, students and elected community residents. Chou added that CPS will encourage local school councils to conduct more community outreach as they decide whether or not to keep officers in their schools.

Barbara West, CPD’s deputy superintendent for Constitutional Policing and Reform, said at the July 2 hearing that every Chicago officer who applies to be a school resource officer must have at least three years of experience and must submit a resume showing that they have experiences and skills that make them a good fit for the job.