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CPS schools remove dozens of cops, shifting $2M from school policing to other student supports

This was the second consecutive year Local School Councils voted on whether to maintain school police programs — but this time they had other options.

The Students Strike Back Coalition protest to keep police officers out of schools, outside the CPS Board of Education meeting in the loop Wednesday, August 26th, 2020.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

More than 30 Chicago high schools have voted to redirect money spent on uniformed police officers to alternative behavioral and mental health supports a year after intense student-led protests put a microscope on the role of cops in public schools.

The moves shift about $2 million from policing to restorative justice programs, according to an advocacy group involved in the district’s planning, with a total of 31 high schools choosing to remove at least one of the two officers typically stationed inside their buildings.

“By shifting the conversation towards more holistic approaches to safety, we believe that the new plans will enable schools to use strategies that are more proactive and supportive in keeping our students safe,” Jadine Chou, CPS’ chief of safety and security, said in a statement.

This was the second consecutive year Local School Councils voted on their school police programs — but this time they had other options.

Last year, when 17 out of 72 schools opted to remove their cops, those resources were poured back into the district’s central operations and weren’t put into other programs for those schools. LSC members citywide said they were frustrated that the district was asking them to choose between police officers or nothing. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools officials were also criticized for pushing the decision to LSCs in the first place instead of taking a stance last summer when racial justice protests swept the country.

The decision stayed at the school level this year, but the district partnered with community groups and advocates over the past few months to help each school develop its own alternative safety plan for the LSC to choose.

That led 24 schools to remove one of their officers and seven to take out both in votes over the past month in favor of new positions such as a dean of restorative justice or a culture coordinator. Another 20 schools kept both cops and two votes are still pending.

After those LSC votes, at least one officer will still be assigned to almost 50 CPS high schools, a majority. But the number of cops at CPS will have fallen from 146 to 74 in the span of two years.

“We are making progress,” said Jasmine Roach, a student leader with VOYCE, one of five community groups that have advised the district on its new approach in recent months. “While it’s been a long time coming, I am glad to see that the voices of students are taken seriously and how we are coming together with parents, LSCs and other students to change school safety. We need to continue speaking out as students, and I am looking forward to continuing this work.”

Many students of color have long said they’ve felt targeted by school police officers, leaving them afraid and uncomfortable in what should be a caring learning environment.

A Sun-Times analysis last year found a stark disparity in how Black students and those in special education are policed compared to other students. And high schoolers in buildings that had officers were four times more likely to have the police called on them than kids at schools that didn’t have in-house cops, feeding into the school-to-prison pipeline that activists have long denounced.

Juleny Santa Cruz, a youth program manager with another group, Mikva Challenge, said the “youth voice was one of the major driving forces for this process and has set the precedent for more student-led decision making in CPS.

“This is one major step into centering the whole school community, especially as the pandemic amplified the struggles schools and students already faced.”

Officers weren’t in any schools last school year because of the pandemic. Even when buildings reopened, district officials said they felt there was no need for cops because only a fraction of students were in school on a given day. That meant CPS ended up paying little of its $12 million police contract to the Chicago Police Department this past academic year.

That agreement between CPS and CPD, which the Board of Education renewed last summer despite strong activist opposition, will be up for renewal again in August. As it did last year when it cut the price of the contract by more than half, the district is expected to attempt to shift costs back to the Police Department.