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Adam Toledo shooting reinforces CPS students’ views on school police

When high schoolers returned to classrooms this week for the first time in 13 months, they had to deal with fresh trauma from the shooting of Adam Toledo, a Latino seventh grader at Gary Elementary in Little Village.

Rosevelt High School sophomore Nathaniel Martinez poses outside of his home in Cragin, Wednesday afternoon, April 21, 2021.
Roosevelt High School sophomore Nathaniel Martinez, outside of his home in Belmont Cragin, Wednesday afternoon, April 21, 2021.
Mengshin Lin/Sun-Times

UPDATE: CPS said Friday that Chicago police officers would not return to schools for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

Attention faded in recent months on the movement to remove uniformed police officers from Chicago Public Schools, particularly while high schools remained closed because of COVID-19.

But when high schoolers returned to classrooms this week for the first time in 13 months, they also had to deal with fresh trauma from police violence.

The city’s latest death at the hands of Chicago police, that of 13-year-old Adam Toledo last month in Little Village, the youngest victim of a CPD shooting in many years, has students across CPS — a system that’s 83% Black and Hispanic — hurting.

Kids already facing unprecedented circumstances because of the pandemic have been left trying to grapple with their feelings after a Chicago cop fatally shot Adam, a Latino seventh grader at Gary Elementary.

A CPS middle school teacher wrote on Twitter the day after the video’s release that their “first class of the day is a normally radiant & full-of-life 6th grade class” but was “heavy” that day. The educator shared a poem the class wrote, in part reading:

“He was 13. Like me. He was a good person. A true person. Like me. He wanted to make it. Like me.

“Black and Brown kids could change the world if we are allowed to grow up. But they killed him. And now we can never find out.”

Thomas Hullum poses for portrait at his home in Brainerd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021.
Thomas Hullum poses for portrait at his home in Brainerd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“It’s wrong,” said Thomas Hullum, a 16-year-old sophomore at Simeon Career Academy, of Adam’s killing. “They could’ve handled the situation in any other type of way.

“They could’ve avoided hurting the whole world. That’s really why it’s been bothering me because it was unnecessary.”

Thomas is a leader with VOYCE, a student-led group that has advocated for the removal of school officers and the creation of alternative safety plans — two of Chicago students’ key demands during last summer’s racial justice protests.

A Chicago Sun-Times analysis of CPS data last year found students who attend a high school with an officer were four times more likely to have the police called on them, with Black and special education students most likely to face police intervention.

After Black and Brown students described their fear of police, city officials left the decision to individual high schools — dozens of which chose to keep their cops — and the Board of Education renewed its multimillion-dollar contract with CPD.

“After I saw what happened to Adam, it made me feel more strongly” that police shouldn’t be in schools, Thomas said. “It makes you kind of nervous to be in school. It makes you think whether you should go to school. It makes you think if you should trust the school environment or any grown up there at all.

“Because if they have the boldness, if they have the will to just shoot a 13-year-old, what would you think they’d do to a 15-, a 14-, a 16-, a 17-, a 18-year-old if they’re in the school and they get into trouble?”

A picture of Adam Toledo is taped to a pole at the corner of 24th St. and Spaulding Ave. in the Little Village neighborhood.
A picture of Adam Toledo is taped to a pole at the corner of 24th Street and Spaulding Avenue in the Little Village neighborhood.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

For many teens, processing Adam’s killing has included being there for friends. Thomas consoled a classmate who cried after authorities released body camera footage of the shooting last week.

Nathaniel Martinez, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, said, “the cops are the ones who are holding the gun. They have the power to choose what will happen, what won’t happen.

“And what they chose for Adam was death. And when I saw that, when I realized that, it just made me scared.”

Nathaniel said “the fact that cops are willing to kill people younger than me brings out that fear in police officers for me.

“But at the end of the day … am I scared of cops? Yes. Am I scared what one of them will do to me if one of them ends up having a bad day and they just want to do something crazy? Yes, I always am. ... But right now we’re trying our best to make a difference.”

CPS should redirect the millions spent on police to hiring more counselors, social workers and nurses and opening school-based clinics to help students deal with trauma, Nathaniel said.

CPS and a handful of community groups — including VOYCE — partnered to release recommendations for police alternatives last month, including restorative justice practices and de-escalation training for adults. But the district hasn’t committed to removing officers from all schools.

“We shouldn’t have students being monitored like criminals by cops in schools,” Nathaniel said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that police had returned to schools this week.