Mayor and CPS chief unveil reforms for cops-in-schools program

Police officers will undergo more extensive reviews to make sure candidates are free of excessive force allegations.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks on as Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson discusses reforms to the school resource officer program for the 2020-2021 school year during a press conference at City Hall in the Loop, Wednesday morning, Aug. 19, 2020.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks on as Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson discusses reforms to the school resource officer program.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Police officers in Chicago Public Schools will now have to pass more stringent background checks and complaints against them will be investigated by an independent police oversight board instead of police supervisors, CPS officials and Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday.

Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson announced a series of reforms to the controversial school resource officer program, which has faced harsh criticism over the years and heightened attention as part of the defund-the-police movement that swept the nation after George Floyd’s killing in May.

Some of the reforms announced Wednesday are not entirely new, including enhanced training for officers that adds to programs in the works months ago.

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“We have heard from our students loud and clear,” Jackson said. “The activism that has been demonstrated amongst our students gives me hope for this city and this country. The reforms that are being announced today are a direct result of their tenacious spirit.”

Activists have complained that putting police in schools often helps facilitate the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” while supporters say cops are an important part of ensuring safety in schools.

“We understand that different communities have different needs that influence the relationship between school resource officers and the schools they serve,” Lightfoot said at at the news conference. “That’s why it’s important that the Local School Councils, who have the pulse of their communities, have the definitive say whether school resource officers are at their schools.”

Among the reforms taking effect this fall:

• A review of an officer’s history that must include an “exceptional discipline” background with “no sustained allegations of force or verbal or physical altercations with youth in the past five years.”

• Complaints against police officers in schools are to be investigated by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, as they are in communities outside of CPS.

• Police officers are now prohibited from entering the names of students into CPD’s Criminal Enterprise Information System; to that end, all computer terminals that allow such access are to be removed from school property, CPS officials said.

• CPS says it’s strengthening existing training for officers that includes understanding implicit racial bias, de-escalation techniques, as well as learning how to better interact with students in special education, LGBTQ students and students with limited English skills.

Mueze Bawany, a Chicago Teachers Union delegate and teacher at Roberto Clemente High School in West Town, found nothing to applaud in the reforms, saying, among other things, that referring complaints to COPA is akin to having “the police investigate the police.”

“To me, this just gives another definition to: what’s the bare minimum we can do and try to appease people who have been active and voicing that there’s something incredibly wrong in how we are essentially policing children into compliance ...?” Bawany said.

Earlier this month, CPS unveiled a new spending plan that budgeted less than half as much money this year to pay police officers stationed in schools as it did last year. But a large chunk of that reduction, about $4.5 million, was due to classes being held remotely in the fall. At the time, Jackson said funding was just one reform the district has planned for this school year.

The Board of Education voted 4-3 in June against a motion to dump the contract with police. But another vote on the program is anticipated later this month, when CPS officials are expected to propose a revised contract for board approval.

As of this week, 55 schools have voted to keep their resources officer while 17 have dropped out of the SRO program.

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