Many students and teachers at Roberto Clemente Community Academy celebrated last Wednesday evening when the high school’s elected governing body voted to remove the Chicago police officers stationed in their building.
The Chicago Teachers Union voiced support on social media, and advocates of police-free schools said this latest victory could spur similar decisions at other high schools that have cops.
But had Clemente’s Local School Council actually voted out their school officers?
The next morning, an LSC member tried to clarify what happened a night earlier: The council had taken an “advisory vote” that “was not a vote set in stone.” They would reconvene for a binding vote at a later meeting after taking more community input.
“Please stop speculating, we are trying to do what is best for Clemente students,” the LSC member wrote on social media.
Those confusing 24 hours for the Clemente school community — and even some LSC members who thought the vote was real — exposes the sometimes muddled affairs of Chicago Public Schools LSCs, about 70 of which the mayor and district have now tasked with making their own monumental decisions on school police.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson have said LSCs are the ultimate authority on the issue because they know best each school’s unique needs.
But more than a dozen schools where police are stationed either have an LSC that doesn’t have full voting authority — several councils don’t have at least seven members, the number needed for a quorum — or don’t have an LSC at all. Those schools without functioning LSCs are all — with the exception of one on the Northwest Side — on the South and West Sides and serve almost entirely low-income Black and Latino students.
Apathy has been a central theme for many LSCs soon after they were created in a landmark 1988 school reform law that tasked them with hiring and evaluating principals, and approving a school’s budget and expenditures. The first LSC election year in 1989 saw more than 17,000 candidates and 312,000 voters. Those numbers dwindled to about half that the very next election.
In the latest LSC election in 2018, there were 5,000 candidates citywide and more than half of schools didn’t have enough names on the ballot to fill the 12 non-principal positions on a typical LSC — six parents, two community members, two teachers and one staffer who isn’t a teacher.
LSC meetings at many schools also see low attendance by the public, and even finding out how to contact members of the council can be difficult for constituents.
When CPS put the decision on school police in the hands of LSCs last year, the district said every one of them voted to keep their officers. But many members across the city said they received little information and minimal notice before voting.
Northside College Preparatory High School became the district’s first school last week to remove its officers. But even at Northside, one of the district’s most prestigious schools that has heavy parent and community involvement, the vote last year to keep the officers was a scramble at best.
“We voted on it in August, and that was just a rushed vote that CPS said we had to make this decision,” Luna Johnston, the student member of the LSC, said last week. “We voted to keep our SROs just because we knew our SROs and we didn’t have any personal issues with them. But we didn’t really understand what their job was and really we voted conditionally in hopes that CPS would add training.”
On Wednesday, CPS plans to issue guidelines for making the decision and has a meeting scheduled for LSC members across the city to discuss their votes. The district has asked LSCs to vote again by Aug. 15.
City Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who issued a scathing report on the school cops program in 2018, renewing the uproar for change, testified earlier this month at a City Council committee hearing on school police and took a shot at Lightfoot’s stance that the decision should be kicked down to members of Local School Councils. He said “the choice to limit community representation on this issue to Local School Councils” is “insufficient” by national standards.
“This tendency to give short shrift to quality community engagement is a broader issue for CPD and municipal government generally,” Ferguson said. “The tightly controlled and orchestrated community dialogue exercises that have become the norm exclude and alienate many concerned and engaged constituents and community members.”
The mayor and CPS’ call to leave the decision to LSCs has also left the people calling for the removal of officers from schools in a peculiar position: They’re some of the same advocates who have argued for empowering LSCs, but they’re now saying this choice shouldn’t be left up to the councils.
Raise Your Hand, a parent advocacy group closely aligned with the teachers union, has been part of a social media campaign for police-free schools.
The organization’s executive director, Jianan Shi, reiterated Tuesday that Raise Your Hand strongly supports LSCs. The group hosted workshops in the spring to educate parents and school staff about upcoming LSC elections — which were delayed until the fall because of the pandemic — and has held a dozen support calls with council members since the pandemic started.
But Shi said it’s disingenuous to spring a major decision on LSCs, with little support, and call that empowerment.
“LSCs could not vote out a citywide contract like Aramark,” Shi said, comparing the district’s food and cleaning contract to the police contract. “This conversation is not, again, about ‘we’re trying to establish community control’ or ‘we’re trying to empower LSCs.”
Shi said advocates would think differently if CPS allowed schools to keep the money used to pay police once they removed officers. But CPS has said it won’t.
“That actually gives them power,” he said.