Debate over school-to-prison pipeline adds to difficulty for councils voting whether to keep cops

CPS met with Local School Council members from around the city Wednesday to help them in their decisions on whether to keep officers at their schools.

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Youth activists dance in front of Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle’s home in Belmont Cragin to demand an end to police presence in schools, Wednesday afternoon, June 24, 2020. The Chicago Board of Education is set to decide whether to end Chicago Public Schools’ $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department and pull out police officers from schools.

Youth activists protested the presence of police in schools outside the home of Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle last month.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools officials on Wednesday told members of local school councils voting on whether to keep police officers in their schools to make sure they take into account concerns over the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

But included in a “toolkit” the district provided council members making the decision was a report that argued there’s no evidence to show the existence of the pipeline, especially not due to the presence of school officers.

The inclusion of the conflicting research brief, written by an east coast consulting group that advises police departments, marks the latest example of what has been an often confusing and difficult process for LSCs tasked with making their own decision on school officers. CPS has tried to ease the pressure on those LSCs by providing more robust guidance this year in the form of the toolkit, which strongly encourages soliciting community input.

Spokeswoman Emily Bolton said Wednesday that CPS "has never wavered in its commitment to addressing the school-to-prison pipeline" but wants to "spur critical conversations" by sharing differing perspectives.

At the start of the toolkit the district made public late Tuesday, officials write that the purpose of the guidelines, in part, is to “ensure that all decisions consider concerns over the school-to-prison pipeline.” The worry for years has been that childhood behavior, particularly that of Black students, is criminalized in school, leading to children going from school directly to jail and creating the so-called pipeline.

Jadine Chou, CPS’ chief of safety and security, said at a meeting discussing the guidelines Wednesday that the district has made progress reducing the frequency with which CPD officers are asked to help in school discipline. She said “we won’t rest until we get that down to virtually zero.”

“We talk a lot about making sure that we are not feeding into the school-to-prison pipeline,” Chou said.

In the guidelines shared with LSCs, links to six reports are included “to represent various perspectives on this topic to help inform the LSC’s decision-making process.”

One 2017 research piece from the Shriver National Center on Poverty Law titled “Handcuffs in Hallways” specifically looks at policing in CPS. The author writes that “poor policing within schools puts students on the fast track to the school-to-prison pipeline,” citing statistics that show students at schools with officers are arrested more often than peers at schools without cops.

Another report called “We Came To Learn” published by the Advancement Project and the Alliance for Educational Justice said the mere fact that students are arrested at schools shows the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline, which students and activists have fought for two decades to dismantle.

A 2016 study by a professor at the University of Tennessee found that students develop more positive attitudes about officers the more often they interact with them, but that students who attend schools that have cops typically feel less of a sense of community at their school.

But a 2016 essay from Dolan Consulting Group, also included in CPS’ guidelines, argued that “the research to date does not support the ‘school to prison pipeline’ theory,” and school police specifically don’t create that pipeline. The author cited other reports that say officers stationed in school are more likely to file lesser charges against students than the typical patrol cop, concluding that “SROs are more lenient.”

The group’s CEO, a retired police chief, wrote an essay last month during national civil rights protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing highlighting “historic professionalism by cops on the front lines” as they dealt with “enraged demonstrators.” He commended officers for not retaliating “in the face of the abuse that they have received,” and added that “accusations of ‘systemic’ and ‘widespread’ police brutality ring hollow.”

Another 2016 report in the district's toolkit, this one by the National Association of School Resource Officers, said collaboration between schools and police is “essential” to create a safe environment, arguing that officers fulfill more than only law enforcement duties at schools. That report cited nationwide drops in arrests of children over the past 20 years to make the point that “SRO programs are not tracks to the juvenile justice system,” and “there is no epidemic of juvenile arrests.”

At CPS, data kept by the district shows police are called far less often now than they were earlier this decade. But records also show officers are still asked to intervene with discipline involving Black students at a disproportionate rate to the number of Black students in the district.

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