School police proposal for Chicago: More power for principals, less for officers

The coming changes to Chicago’s embattled school police officer program are beginning to take shape, as the deadline for implementing new federally mandated guidelines looms. Proposed updates include allowing principals to help select school officers, taking those officers’ disciplinary history into account prior to placement, and encouraging them to help out with extracurricular activities. 

At a public meeting Monday, which drew parents and community members to Little Village’s Piotrowski Park, police officials described possible changes affecting the nearly 100 officers who patrol Chicago’s schools. 

As part of its agreement with the federal government, the Chicago Police Department must add new transparency and accountability measures to police operations this coming school year, after an investigation found cases of police misconduct and a pattern of biased patrolling. 

Until recently, there were no clear hiring requirements for officers stationed at the city’s public schools, no standard youth-specific training, and no dedicated way for school leaders to process complaints against these officers. Just last week, the city trained all of its school police officers for the first time in a decade

“I will be the first one to acknowledge that there is a lot of need for improvement,” Jadine Chou, chief of safety and security for the district, said at Monday’s meeting, one of four such gatherings to be held around the city. “This is not a one-size-fits-all solution.” 

The next meeting to solicit public comment will take place 6–8 p.m. on July 24 at Warren Park, 6601 N. Western Ave. 

Meanwhile, the proposed memorandum of understanding between the police department and the school district will be available for public review at the August meeting of the Chicago school board. Here’s what we know about the proposal so far: 

Principals will play a role in selecting school officers. 

In the past, district commanders determined where school police officers were assigned. 

“I’ve never had any formal communication from CPS about the role of police officers in schools,” Chad Adams, the principal at Sullivan High School in the Rogers Park neighborhood, told the Chicago Reader in 2017.

That will change, now that principals and Local School Councils can weigh in, too.

“This is a really big deal,” said Chou, who noted that school leaders would soon be involved in both the selection of officers and in the accountability process. 

There will be a formal complaint process for schools unhappy with their stationed officers.

There has been little guidance about how to evaluate how officers placed in schools and no formal complaint process for schools dissatisfied with the performance of their officers. Principals issued complaints and flagged infractions involving police through the district’s in-school reporting system, known as Verify. 

Under the new process, Chou said, “if there is an issue with a specific officer, schools will know what that specific process looks like,” but did not provide additional details as to what that process would entail. 

Officers must have an “acceptable” disciplinary history and submit a resume to work in a school.

The police department will create new, formal selection criteria for school resource officers, requiring them to have  “acceptable” disciplinary history and performance ratings. They will also have to submit a written request to work in a school to their district commander, along with a resume.  

Of the nearly 250 police officers who served in Chicago schools as of April 2016, two had previously killed teenagers, one was sued for beating a minor, and one was recommended for firing by the police board. In addition, 33 school officers had nine or more misconduct complaints on their records, compared to 80 percent of all Chicago officers, who have four or fewer complaints, according to data released by the Invisible Institute, a non-profit that investigates police abuse. 

Under the department’s new selection criteria, some of these officers may not have been chosen to serve in schools. (The police department did not respond to requests for clarification about what constitutes an “acceptable” disciplinary history.)  

Officers won’t administer discipline. 

Administrators and community advocates often worry that school officers may escalate disciplinary situations that could otherwise be handled without resorting to arrests or punitive responses. New proposed rules clarify that an officer can intervene if there is a call for help that is directed to an officer or concerns about a possible crime. But the guidelines prohibit school police officers from engaging in school discipline or “classroom disorder situations.” 

Guidelines encourage police engagement in the school community.

While the primary role of school police officers is to respond to any incidents that might be against the law, the district and the police department are also suggesting that officers engage in extracurricular activities to foster “a positive learning environment” and help build relationships with students and staff. 

At Monday’s meeting, critics of the school policing program were split on this approach, with some arguing that officers should be out of schools altogether — not taking on additional conflict resolution or emotional support roles there that might be better suited for social workers or counselors.

“I had to do a practicum of over 700 hours to get to where I am,” said Elizabeth Crisostomo, a school counselor with Enlace, a Southwest-side based community organization, who splits her time at Community Links High School and Farragut Career Academy. “So why would we ask anyone else to do that same work [without] having that experience?”