Holder lauds “amazing” turnaround in student safety at CPS

SHARE Holder lauds “amazing” turnaround in student safety at CPS

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder returned to Chicago Wednesday to hail the “amazing” turnaround in school safety since the 2009 beating death of Fenger Academy student Derrion Albert — even after 50 school closings.

“There are a lot of great things going on in Chicago. There is an organized, a galvanized community led by a great mayor that has led to reductions in all the viable statistics — really amazing reductions,” Holder said during a roundtable at police headquarters.

“If you’d said this city was gonna be where it is now five years ago, I’d have said that was being really, really optimistic — perhaps even overly optimistic. But this mayor, this community has proven that attorney general at that time wrong.”

A 16-year old honors student, Albert was beaten to death during a mob attack near Fenger captured on cellphone video and played around the world.

Days later, Holder and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago Public Schools CEO, made a special trip to Chicago to respond to an incident that generated unflattering headlines around the globe.

On Wednesday, Holder was back in Chicago at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s request for a roundtable discussion that helped to put a positive spin on a wrenching decision that has cost Emanuel dearly among African-American voters: a record 50 school closings.

Emanuel and Holder touted the fact that the just-ended school year was the safest on record in the seven years since the Chicago Public Schools started tracking safety.

Compared to three years ago, there were: 49 fewer students shot, a 50 percent drop from the year before; 12 percent fewer students murdered; more than 27,000 fewer out-of-school suspensions; 1,300 fewer referrals for expulsion and 1,000 fewer in-school arrests.

Those improved statistics were aided by what Emanuel called a “cultural shift” in school discipline — from expulsion first to restorative justice while tutoring and mentoring troublemakers who remain in school.

During the roundtable, participants made only tangential reference to the cost of keeping displaced students safe on the longer walk to new schools readied for them with $233 million in academic, equipment and facility upgrades.

CPS spent millions on more than 600 Safe Passage monitors who lined the streets leading to so-called “welcoming” schools, along with police officers, firefighters and hundreds of other city workers.

“Where people were anticipating lots and lots of problems, there were very, very few,” Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said during the roundtable.

“This year we had the lowest rate of violence among students — as victims or offenders. Very clearly, the Safe Passage program which we invested an awful lot of resources in — we gained an awful lot of return on investment.”

The mayor agreed — and vowed to spend $1 million more on Safe Passage next year to expand the program’s reach beyond 90 schools, despite a projected, $876 million CPS budget shortfall exacerbated by the teacher pension crisis.

Emanuel has alienated African-American voters who helped put him in office by instigating Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years, closing 50 public schools, opening new charter schools and unveiling plans to build new schools and school additions, with the educational largesse heavily concentrated on the North Side.

That includes a $14 million addition to Walter Payton College Prep and a new, $60 million selective enrollment high school nearby named after President Barack Obama, whose 2011 endorsement of his former White House chief-of-staff sealed the deal with black voters.

A recent Chicago Sun-Times poll showed how big a price the first-term mayor has paid for those decisions. Only 29 percent of those surveyed and eight percent of African-Americans said they would support Emanuel if the election were held today.

On Wednesday, Emanuel reflected once again on that seminal decision.

“That was a very difficult time — not just for me, but for the whole city. Nobody wants to do that. There were also challenges related to not just the safety, but also academics,” he said.

“The fears, justifiably raised, did not bear out, given this was the safest year. But also attendance at the schools [was] up. The resources we invested — from the air-conditioning, the improvements physically — also happened. The technology upgrades did happen. And we’ve got to make sure that every year, we’re making the type of progress we need to make academically.”

As always, the mayor said his work is not done.

“We need more after-school opportunities. We need more summer jobs. We need more time mentoring in school. We need to make sure the routes to school are safe, which is why we’re gonna be expanding the Safe Passage route. We need to make sure that, for kids of color, they don’t unfairly bear the burden of expulsion,” Emanuel said.

“If you have an approach that . . . has an expulsion first, a zero-tolerance policy, that the first thing a principal is told to do is just kick a kid out, those challenges end up on Garry [McCarthy’s] desk.”

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said staged and scripted events like Wednesday’s version at police headquarters will not rehabilitate the mayor’s image in the African-American community.

“It’s great that fewer students were harmed during the school year. But, to say it’s safe doesn’t do a whole lot to improve negative perceptions that have occurred because of the layoffs, the closings, the increase in charter schools and the fact that charters are not performing much better,” said Sawyer, whose ward is home to scores of teachers.

“When I talk to everyday people, the No. 1 thing they talk to me about is school closings and the way the administration is treating the public schools, students and staff. School closings have had a devastating impact on the city and it hurts him politically, particularly in black and brown communities where people were affected the most.”

The Chicago Teachers Union was not impressed with Emanuel’s claims about student safety. 

In a statement released after the roundtable, the union said there is a “serious disconnect between what CPS is saying and what is being reported” by individual schools. 

The CTU applauded the shift away from suspensions and expulsions, but said schools need the staff and resources necessary to “address inappropriate student behavior” and make the shift to “restorative justice programs that enable students to address personal trauma, anger and conflicts” in their homes and outside of school.

“You can’t appropriately deal with disciplinary infractions and behavior issues without social workers, counselors, etc., and instead of expanding those positions, they are cutting them — making schools less safe and secure for students and staff,” the union said. 

The CTU statement noted that the “so-called decline” in crimes committed by and against students follows the mayor’s decision to close  50 neighborhood schools, suspend students and “siphon many more off to privately held” charter schools. 

“CPS still has not accounted for all of the students impacted by these closings. Where have they gone; and, what has happened to them?” the union said.

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