EDITORIAL: Making the argument for cops on the street, not in schools

SHARE EDITORIAL: Making the argument for cops on the street, not in schools

The video shows the kind of encounter that should never take place in a high school, between two police officers and a smaller teenage girl.

One officer grabs the girl, pushes and pulls her toward a stairwell, drags her down the stairs, then places a foot on her chest to hold her down on the floor as the second officer appears to punch her and use a Taser on her.

The video, obtained by the Sun-Times, flatly contradicts the two officers’ account of what happened during the January incident at Marshall High School. They claim that 16-year-old Dnigma Howard kicked and bit them as they tried to escort her out of the school. They also say they fell down a flight of stairs.

We saw little of that on the video, though there could be more to the story. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine any missing details that would have justified such rough treatment of an unarmed teenage girl.

But it could all happen again tomorrow, as long as armed police officers, untrained in how to deal with sometimes unruly teenagers, are stationed inside dozens of public schools.

It’s time, we think, for an entirely different approach. Grassroots activists and youth advocates have complained of unprofessional policing in Chicago schools for years. Their complaints have been echoed by some legal experts and, last year, by the city’s Office of the Inspector General.

We urge Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and her education transition team to consider a bold move: Take police officers out of schools. Make it clear that the school system’s mission is learning, not law enforcement.

As one former CPS teacher told us on Friday, “If you are 13 and go to a school with a metal detector, armed cop and no science lab, what message does that send to kids?”

The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law recommended two years ago that Chicago eliminate police officers from schools and replace them with guidance counselors.

“Having police in schools just increases the likelihood of children being involved with the justice system,” Shriver Center staff attorney Patrice James said.

Let’s understand: We believe it’s essential to have police patrolling near schools, especially in tough neighborhoods, to be near at hand in an emergency and ensure the safety of students and school employees. Metal detectors make sense, too, in schools that opt to have them to prevent students — or anyone else — from bringing in guns and other weapons.

But it makes less sense to station armed police officers full-time inside schools, where they are expected to resolve fights between students and mete out discipline — responsibilities better handled by counselors with the expertise to work with young people.

“We need to have a broader public discussion with parents and others about expectations,” Ed Yohnka of the American Civil Liberties Union told us. “It may be that discussion leads to the conclusion that we can’t give them enough training, or put the right people there. Then maybe there’s another approach we should take.”

Last September, the city’s Office of the Inspector General issued a report that sharply criticized the lack of training for school officers, and the lack of oversight by CPD and CPS. Neither agency could then provide a current list of which officers are assigned to which schools.

CPS points out that only 75 schools now have full-time officers, down from 97 schools in 2010 — though dozens of schools have closed in that same period. CPS promises to have a “memorandum of understanding” with CPD on the role of officers in schools by next school year.

And if principals and local school councils decide they no longer want police in their schools, CPS will “work with them to develop alternative safety measures,” according to a spokesperson.

But that’s getting things backward. What would be wrong with making those “alternatives” the first option?

RELATED: Chicago police school security guards’ story doesn’t hold up on video

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial identified both police officers as being men. One officer was a man, the other was a woman. 

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