Chicago Public Schools officials are currently working with Local School Councils, area nonprofits and community members on identifying alternatives to School Resource Officers in schools ahead of the release of a public safety plan sometime later this year.

West Side community members attended a virtual workshop on Feb. 16 to air their skepticism about the ability of police to keep students and teachers safe in schools and to explore better ways of achieving public safety. 

So far, 55 CPS schools have SRO programs. Last year, several aldermen and members of the Chicago school board tried to end the program altogether. The board made several changes to the contract and Local School Councils were allowed to decide the fate of the SRO programs in their respective schools. 

Chicago Public Schools officials are currently working with several area nonprofits to suggest alternatives to the program. One of the nonprofits involved is Austin-based BUILD Chicago, 5100 W. Harrison St. 

Throughout the month of February, the nonprofits held several community workshops to get resident input, with BUILD holding workshops on Feb. 16 and Feb. 24. Steering committees established during the process will grapple with the public feedback from these meetings, with LSC’s expected to consider a draft safety plan sometime before the school board adopts its 2022 budget at the end of the summer. 

Jamey Makowski, the director of core programs at BUILD, said while “physical safety is a very important part” of the process, it’s only one aspect of the process. 

“It’s easy for our minds to default to physical safety,” she said. “But we also need to consider the other parts of that safety. In order to make it whole for the students and the staff and the community, we need to think about the relational trust, how we can create a nurturing and trusting environment, and also emotional safety, which I would argue is the most important area of safety for anyone in the building.”

BUILD and other organizations will use the information they got from the focus groups to come up with five to 10 recommendations for what a safety plan should look like. Chicago Public Schools officials will then share those recommendations with LSC’s, which will be responsible for finalizing the safety plans. 

Eleven people tuned into the virtual meeting on Feb. 16, including Donovan Robinson, the director of restorative justice at Michele Clark Academy High School, 5101 W. Harrison St.

Robinson said in order to achieve safety, students need to have a say in the process and need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts. 

“Teenagers want to feel like they can trust you,” he said. “In a lot of instances, they don’t feel comfortable having those conversations with people in the building. If they don’t have that safe space, that person they’re able to talk to, to implement things, we’re going to be going around in circles, because they don’t trust you.” 

Roberto Menjivar, one of the parent representatives at the Local School Council for Jones College Prep said that police officers have no place in schools.

“In my view, policing is a way to contain and repress people, and I don’t think they should have a role in the school,” he said. 

Catherine Stapleton, a community ambassador for BUILD, echoed those thoughts, saying that, even if the students didn’t have negative experiences with the police first-hand, chances are high that they’ve seen police officers mistreat someone else or have experienced the trauma of police arresting their loved ones. 

“Walking into the building, seeing the police, that’s going to shut them down,” she said. “Having a principal or a teacher greet them at the door with a hug and a smile goes a long way.”

Keith Kelley, a restorative justice coordinator at Marshall High School, 3520 W. Adams St., reflected that he was “conditioned, as a Black man in America” not to look at anyone in the police uniform unless he absolutely had to do so. 

“You walk into a school building and you have a different vibe if you hear teachers and students having positive interactions, as opposed to hearing someone being cussed at,” Kelley said. “Positive energy is contagious and the more positive energy you shower visitors with, the more positive energy you’re going to attract. At least that’s what I hope.”

Robinson also suggested that many incidents could be avoided if teachers take the first five minutes of their class time to check in with the students and see if anything is bothering them, in or outside school.

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...