Give alternatives to cops in schools a chance to take root and flourish

School calls to police are down, and more schools are trying restorative practices and mental health support to resolve conflicts and curb misbehavior without relying on police.

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A police car is parked outside Roberto Clemente Community Academy in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, Friday afternoon, Nov. 19, 2021, after police were called for back-up in response to fights in the school.

A police car is parked outside Roberto Clemente Community Academy on Nov. 19, 2021, after police were called to respond to fights in the school.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

An encouraging trend seems to be taking hold in Chicago Public Schools: High schools are relying less on policing and more on restorative practices and student support to maintain discipline and curb teenage misbehavior.

It’s a good step, we think, toward ensuring that schools are welcoming institutions of learning and not the first stop in the well-documented “school-to-prison” pipeline that ensnares too many young people of color.

It will take resources — read: money — smart planning and commitment to make restorative practices effective over the long term. So far, dozens of schools are trying.

The number of police officers assigned to CPS high schools has fallen by a third, as many schools opt instead for practices such as peace circles to resolve conflicts and more student support to curb misbehavior, as the Sun-Times’ Nader Issa and WBEZ’s Sarah Karp reported Sunday.

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Editorial

“Nothing is too small to address,” as Antonio Ross, principal of Hyde Park High School, said. “It doesn’t matter if it is silly to you as an adult. She’s 14, and she’s distraught. You have to understand and respect every student’s feelings, and that is the time-consuming part. It is exhausting, but it is necessary.”

Students and community activists have pushed for years for schools to take a restorative approach, citing research from Chicago and elsewhere that shows Black and Latino students are often harshly disciplined, even arrested, for routine disagreements and teenage misbehavior. The city’s Office of the Inspector General in 2018 issued a report that sharply criticized the lack of training for school officers, and the lack of oversight by the Chicago Police Department and CPS.

In 2020, the Sun-Times found that students who attended a high school with a police officer stationed inside were four times more likely to have the police called on them than kids at high schools that didn’t have police.

With violence on the rise and Chicago police leaving the job in record numbers, this editorial board has argued time and again that officers should be patrolling the streets, not school hallways.

Some people will disagree, of course, in part because of the threat of school shootings. We’d argue that preventing such mass shootings is more a matter of enacting stronger federal gun regulations than “hardening” schools with more cops.

School discipline is best handled by caring adults who are trained to deal with misbehavior stemming from normal teenage angst. In many Chicago high schools, discipline problems are more challenging because young people are dealing with the stress and trauma of living in communities scarred by violence and poverty.

They need mental health support, not arrest.

A long way to go

In 2020, CPS gave high schools a choice of whether or not to keep their two assigned police officers and offered resources to schools that decided to try alternatives. To date, 50 of 91 high schools have chosen alternatives, while 19 schools still have two officers and 22 schools have just one.

Perhaps predictably, the number of police calls from high schools have declined sharply, by 38% in the first semester of the just-ended 2020-21 school year compared to the same time period a year ago, the Sun-Times and WBEZ found.

It’s too soon to declare victory, though. The data on police calls is based on a small number of schools. CPS is expected to release more complete data this summer that will allow for more comparisons among schools — and maybe show which alternatives work best.

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Even the best plans won’t take root without commitment. Schurz High School on the Northwest Side opted to get rid of police, but couldn’t hire a social worker until last winter. A restorative justice coordinator was hired, but left in the spring. Plans for a mental health program never ramped up. When the school went on lockdown because of a social media rumor regarding a gun, some teachers complained about not having police around anymore.

So clearly, there’s work to be done. Schools in especially troubled neighborhoods, or where officers are trusted and respected by students and staff, will no doubt decide to keep their officers. CPS should continue to honor those schools’ choices.

But where alternatives are taking root, let’s give the new strategies time — and support — to flourish.

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