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Bridging Chicago’s great divide when it comes to cops in schools

We take the view that cops have no place in the daily life of schools, but we say so with a good dose of humility.

Chicago Teachers Union members and supporters march through the Loop on Wednesday to call for an end to a $33 million contract between the Chicago Police and the public schools.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times

Chicago’s school board voted Wednesday not to remove cops from schools, a decision we find regrettable.

We’ll stand by the evidence, some of which we offered in an editorial a couple of weeks ago, that the presence of police officers does not make schools safer, just a little more like the anteroom to prison.

The normal ways in which kids misbehave too often become criminalized when the school cop, rather than a counselor or social worker, is called in. Arrests, handcuffs, fingerprinting, criminal records and higher dropout rates follow.

But here’s an additional point we’d like to make today, having sat through three hours of debate by the school board. We take our position — that cops have no place in the daily life of schools — with a good dose of humility, respecting the arguments on the other side.

At a time when furious certainty accompanies many discussions about the proper role of the police, we can’t see the sense in doing that here.

Many schools want cops

The best research undoubtedly argues against putting cops in schools, but the staff of the Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday made a credible case that CPS’ program has been improved and continues to be improved. Cops in schools are being better selected and trained, and their involvement in school discipline matters has been narrowed.

Equally important, an awful lot of public schools apparently want cops in their schools, even if folks like us and others outside school walls think it’s a bad idea.

In an online CPS survey conducted in late May and early June, 65% of the “school community” members polled — principals, teachers, support staff, parents and students — said they “strongly or somewhat” favor retaining school cops. Only 12% of people from the community at large felt the same. This has led to a curious situation in which at least a few aldermen oppose cops in schools but the schools in their wards do not.

The staff of CPS also presented evidence Wednesday that the presence of a police officer in a school is less likely today, compared to five years ago, to result in a call from the school to a police station when a student acts up. Police notifications are down 58% for all Chicago public schools over the five years. Notifications from high schools that have a school resource officer — a school cop — are down 64%. And notifications involving African American students at high schools with a cop are down more than 70%.

Signs of racism

That said, the school district’s own data gives credence to the charge that an insidious structural racism continues to run through Chicago’s cops-in-school program, as in similar programs around the country. Black kids comprise only 36% of all CPS students, yet they are the subject of 66% of all police notifications. And police notifications for Black girls are seven times higher than for white girls.

At a time when our city and nation are experiencing a resurgent, painful and necessary reckoning with institutionalized racism, we just can’t see why Chicago would want to continue to cross-pollinate two institutions that historically have been so guilty of racism — the police and schools.

Studies have concluded that when police officers are stationed in schools, the normal problems of kids misbehaving, which might otherwise result in a counselor or social worker being called in, often get redefined as quasi-criminal matters that call for the cops. The impact of this — on a child’s self-image, future in school and future in life — has proven to have a disproportionate impact on students of color.

A 2018 University of California at Los Angeles study found that putting police into Texas schools led to a decline in graduation and college enrollment rates.

Spend $33 million better

Minneapolis, Portland and Seattle all recently put an end to police-in-school programs, and Chicago should, too. The school district’s $33 million contract with the Chicago police expires in August, so the school board will have to take another vote later this summer.

We urge the school board to reconsider. Take that $33 million and put it to more enlightened uses, hiring more counselors, social workers and librarians.

Maintain, or even beef up, the presence of strong adult authority figures in Chicago’s schools, which is what we believe principals and teachers really want most.

But leave the cops — ready to respond in emergencies — outside.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.