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Why cops in Chicago’s schools are never the right answer

I spent five years teaching at Englewood High before it closed, and I never needed to call the police.

Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th) speaks during a press conference outside City Hall about an ordinance that would terminate a $33 million contract between the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Public Schools,
Ald. Rod Sawyer (6th) speaks during a press conference outside City Hall about an ordinance that would terminate a $33 million contract between the Chicago Police Department and Chicago Public Schools,
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

I taught social studies for five years at Englewood High School after the 2002 murder of star basketball player Maurice Davis on school grounds.

That was a gut-wrenching year. Students were traumatized, false fire alarms were often pulled, and staff turnover created a feeling of chaos. To make matters worse, then-CEO Arne Duncan used standardized test data from that tumultuous year to justify launching a phase-out of the school.

But not once during my time at Englewood did I ever need to call the police.

Yes, I had discipline problems with students and growing pains as a teacher. But the relationships we built with students, along with the knowledge of the community that Black teachers and security guards had, were all we needed to avert problems.

Were there fights and occasional gang activity in the school? Absolutely. Was it because we didn’t have enough police? Not at all.

At Englewood, I replaced a 30-year veteran, a beloved Black educator and basketball coach who had grown up in the community and attended Englewood in the early 1960s, which is when the student body became all Black because of white flight. At the time, there were more than 3,000 students, but only one security guard who monitored the front entrance.

By 2003, the school was down to 800 students, with 14 security guards, two full-time police officers, a high-tech camera system that could circumnavigate the block and metal detectors. Despite the additional resources, Englewood experienced an exponential increase in the frequency of school fights, truancy and disciplinary infractions.

So what happened? Did teachers stop caring, parents stop parenting? Or did something more insidious occur?

The nightly news rarely describes it, but deindustrialization had a horrendous impact on Chicago’s Black belt from the 1970s through the 1990s. A massive loss of high-paying union jobs — in the stockyards and steel plants, at manufacturers like International Harvester and Sunbeam Electronics, and more — devastated Black workers who had finally achieved a semblance of economic parity with whites.

At precisely the same time, police appeared in schools as the Nixon and Ford administrations transitioned from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.

As Harvard University historian Elizabeth Hinton has pointed out, the 1974 Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act “vastly expanded the reach and resources of urban police in nearly every facet of the lives of Black youth.” Police patrols in hallways and classrooms became ubiquitous in urban public schools.

Fast forward to 2009, when Derrion Albert of Fenger High School was murdered near the school just a few months after all of the school’s veteran teachers had been fired in a school “turnaround.” Many of my colleagues who had been dismissed from Englewood were re-hired at Fenger, only to be let go again three years later.

Afterward, many Fenger teachers viewed the wholesale firing of Black veteran teachers and security guards as the primary reason for Derrion’s death. One former teacher told me that the newcomers were unable to identify problems among students “that had arisen during the day and continued to spill out into the streets.”

The additional police presence at the school did nothing to avert the tragedy.

School communities are delicate ecosystems that can be permanently damaged by bad policy and societal ills. Replacing beloved teachers with police, closing or “turning around” schools, and massive job loss in the surrounding community — all of these things harm schools in ways that policing cannot fix.

It is time to acknowledge that school police are detrimental to countless Black and Brown students. That is why my union — the Chicago Teachers Union — and a coalition of local and national organizations have mobilized to demand police-free schools, greater investment in schools to prepare for a potential spike of COVID-19 in the fall, and housing and health care guarantees for all Chicago families.

The call to defund police is designed to undo the harm caused by a lack of community investment over the past half-century — and build a country that will support Black and Brown children and create a more equal and just future.

Jackson Potter is a social studies teacher at Back of the Yards High School. Follow him on Twitter @jacksonpCTU

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