Will Chicago take a final big step toward police-free schools?

This summer, local school councils and the School Board will cast crucial votes on whether to post police officers in schools. And, for the first time, the district is promising resources to schools that choose an alternative to the presence of a cop.

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Chicago Teachers Union members and hundreds of supporters march through the Loop to call for an end to the police presence in dozens of Chicago schools.

In August 2020, the Chicago Teachers Union and other supporters demanded an end to the police presence in Chicago schools. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, other cities removed police from public schools.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

In the coming weeks, local school councils at dozens of Chicago public high schools will vote once again on whether to keep police officers stationed in their schools.

And later this summer, the School Board will vote on whether to renew the district’s current $15 million contract with the Chicago Police Department to cover the costs of officers.

This could signal a new era in CPS, a “new normal” — one that is largely police-free — for high schools as they resume full-time, in-person instruction next fall.

We hope so.

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We have long held the view that Chicago’s public schools must remain firmly focused on education, not law enforcement, and that police officers belong on the street, not on campus. We think that’s all the more so now as gun violence in our city continues to spike upwards.

We’ve taken that stand time and again because an abundance of research has shown that the presence of police officers in schools inevitably leads to situations in which teenage misbehavior is treated as a criminal matter. This has been particularly true for Black students, who comprise only about 36% of all CPS students yet are the subject of 66% of all police notifications.

The presence of police can have a detrimental impact on education as well, as a 2018 study from the University of California at Los Angeles found. Putting police into Texas schools led to a decline in graduation and college enrollment rates.

A year before that, in 2017, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law recommended that Chicago remove police officers from schools and replace them with guidance counselors.

And in 2019, the city’s Office of the Inspector General issued a report that sharply criticized the lack of training for school cops, and the lack of oversight by CPD and CPS.

Support for a new approach to discipline

More Chicago high schools have come around to that view as well. Last year, 17 local school councils voted to remove cops from their buildings. This year, LSCs have until July 14 to decide.

Even so, we respect the fact that dozens of schools — 55 in 2020 — continue to believe their best option is to keep their officers. An LSC that considers its officers to be a positive, stable adult presence in a school in a tough neighborhood is making the decision it deems is best.

We’re glad to learn that Chicago Public Schools is now promising resources to support schools that choose alternatives to the police for discipline and safety. Next year, schools that decide to no longer have police officers on campus will be given a choice of additional staff, such as a social worker or counselor. Or they’ll be provided funding to hire an outside vendor, like a social service agency, to help with discipline and safety.

That’s all to the good. There are better ways than policing to maintain safety and order in schools. Peer juries, peace circles and the like, for instance, can help students resolve conflict without fighting. Extra social workers or counselors can lend a listening ear and help teens cope with trauma that would otherwise result in “acting out” — and maybe getting arrested.

CPS has revised its code of conduct, as well, to drastically reduced its necessary reliance on cops. The revised code instructs administrators and principals not to call police — including officers stationed in their building — when students engage in unruly behavior. The police should be called only in cases of an emergency with “immediate threats of danger or imminent harm” that can’t otherwise be addressed.

It will take time. But a new and better normal is emerging.

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