By the numbers

Chicago schools log more than 900 sexual misconduct complaints in four months

Last fall, Chicago schools kicked off a poster campaign that spells out how to report suspected abuse.

In a little over four months, Chicago students have reported more than 900 cases of alleged sexual misconduct — an unprecedented number — in response to a sweeping campaign designed to improve school district handling of complaints.

The vast majority of the complaints reported students misconduct against other students.

In response to a Chicago Tribune series that exposed widespread flaws in how the district handled sexual abuse allegations back to 2000, Chicago Public Schools scrambled to better respond to allegations against teachers and other adults, and the report on Wednesday said the district has removed 33 adults from schools this school year as a result of new investigations.

But the numbers shared Wednesday with the Chicago school board quantify another problem the district is facing: student-on-student complaints, ranging from inappropriate touching, sexting and harassment to more violent physical encounters.

Of the 932 cases reported since the start of school, 82 percent involved student complaints against other students, and some of them happened outside of school. The remaining cases involved adults — but only half of those were complaints against educators and others who work in schools. The rest were made against a student’s family member or other adults who have contact with children at home.

“With an increased education campaign and more awareness, victims feel more comfortable coming forward because they have more confidence that something will actually be done,” said schools chief Janice Jackson, of the new numbers. “Nothing is more important than creating a safe environment and protecting our children.”

Speaking later, teachers union President Jesse Sharkey was more pointed. “Adult misconduct is surely not acceptable,” he said, “but, holy crap, we have a lot of work to do in terms of student behavior against other students.”

Roughly half of all complaints came from students in the city’s K-8 schools; the other half were from high schools.

Just over 200 of those cases have been reviewed or closed, and 375 were in process, said Douglas Henning, a Chicago schools lawyer who is serving as interim Office of Student Protections and Title IX chief until the district hires a director. The rest are awaiting review.

After the Tribune series published, schools chief Janice Jackson acted quickly to address complaints against adults. She hired former federal prosecutor Maggie Hickey to investigate and recommend how the district should respond. And she handed power to review student allegations against teachers, coaches, and other adults to Chicago’s inspector general for schools, Nicholas Schuler.

Jackson also created a Title IX office, run by Henning, to handle student complaints of misconduct by other students and by adults who don’t work in schools.

Sequoia Williams, a parent of a kindergartener and a second grader at James R. Doolittle Elementary near the Bronzeville neighborhood, told the board that she had filed complaints about inappropriate touching and bullying at the school among students, and was still waiting on resolution.

“We need help,” she said. “These kids are not safe.”

Speaking after the board meeting, she said she complained to the Title IX office first, but was told that a principal had to make a report. After another round of calls and emails, including to the Department of Children and Family Services and Chicago’s inspector general for schools, she received a letter from the Title IX office that her case was under investigation.

In his report to the board Wednesday, Schuler said his office had fielded 136 complaints against adults since October, reflecting that “a culture change has begun.”

“People are reporting more regularly,” he said.

In those cases, 33 adults have been pulled from schools pending investigation. Of those, 12 were teachers and eight were security guards; the rest were vendors, bus drivers or aides, plus a coach, a lunchroom mentor, a custodian, and a special education assistant.

Schuler’s report to Chicago’s school board also laid bare another challenge: inconsistency in how charter schools report alleged abuse of students.

“We do have cases from charters,” Schuler said, “but my gut feeling is they seem underrepresented. I want to make sure we have a handle on that and that the same awareness campaign has reached the charter schools.”

He also expressed concern that charters don’t use the same reporting system to centrally log disciplinary actions as district-run schools.

Henning, chief of the student protections office, said that his office is training a teacher at each school to serve as a Title IX liaison to report suspected abuse. But charter teachers haven’t been trained.

The district’s general counsel, Joseph Moriarty, said the district is addressing some concerns about charter compliance when it renews the schools’ charters. The board voted Wednesday in favor of renewing several charter contracts, including the city’s largest network, Noble Schools.

“As part of all our charter contract renewals, we are asking schools to notify CPS when they have issues involving sexual abuse or key personnel so the district can exercise appropriate oversight,” Moriarty said.

The district told Chalkbeat it would disclose other conditions on the charter schools once it sent out official charter renewals in February.


First Person

We’ve watched as schools have responded to the Parkland shooting with more police. What we actually need: counselors and teachers of color

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students from the Grace Dodge campus in the Bronx walked out of class on March 14 to call for more investment in mental health support and counselors.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago today, in which 17 students and staff members were killed, put gun violence front and center in the national conversation. It’s been a year since this horrific tragedy, and we must continue to put the focus on ways to truly make schools safer.

What happened in the aftermath of Parkland was incredible. Students, some of them our age, who had been silent became active, and those who have been speaking about gun violence for years got even louder. Marjory Stoneman Douglas students used their time in the spotlight to garner worldwide media attention, and youth across the country organized walkouts, including in New York.

We have so much love and respect for what the Parkland students did in the midst of tragedy. They helped, as models and through their actions, build the foundation for future generations fighting for social justice. But while their success is undeniable, we must also acknowledge the countless students of color who have advocated for the end of gun violence for years but have never attracted the same attention and who sometimes see school safety through a different lens.

These students, in organizations like LIFE Camp in Queens, and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, have been on the ground in black and brown communities long before the Parkland tragedy. The two of us — one a student of color, Alliyah, who has experienced some of the effects of gun violence, and one of us, Abe, who is white and has mostly escaped such experiences — stand together to elevate these voices.

The voices of students of color are too often ignored, forgotten, or silenced. Many communities of color know the consequences of gun violence all too well, and students there have had to reckon with the threat of gun violence too early in young lives. They go to schools that are already over-policed and wait in long lines every morning to go through metal detectors that do not make them feel safe. Yet these students’ stories have often been left out of the national debates about gun violence; that must change.

In the Bronx, where Alliyah went to middle school, the threat of gun violence was often present. In middle school, there were frequent loudspeaker announcements telling students that a peer had been injured or killed at the hands of a gun. Each notice left families and friends reeling, but their suffering didn’t attract much media attention. And the response to school shootings has often been to insist on more police, more security measures in and around schools that often don’t make students of color feel safer.

They can be hassled by police to and from school and wait in those long metal-detector lines to enter school. Students can be subject to random searches by the New York Police Department at school, as described by a recent student at a Black Lives Matter at School rally. Black students are more likely than whites to receive harsher punishments for the same categories of misbehavior in school. Taken together, over-policing in and around schools can lower test scores and become a reason to avoid school for some students of color, as a new study has found.

That’s why we believe the answer to school violence isn’t more police, more metal detectors, or teachers carrying guns. We were heartened to see New York state legislators supporting a bill to prevent teachers from carrying guns in schools. This is a start. But too many other states are responding to the tragedy at Parkland by arming teachers, which doesn’t make students of color feel more secure. It is extremely important that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, feel protected in schools. But this can only happen if students of color have a voice in how we respond to gun violence.

So what do students of color need? More adults of color whom students can turn to when they have problems; more counselors who can talk to us about issues we’re having before violence happens and when something traumatic does take place. Sometimes it’s a teacher’s positivity that creates a nurturing school environment. Alliyah, for example, attends a public high school where most of the students and teachers are white. But there are two black female teachers, and they constantly cheer her and each other on with positive comments, complimenting each other on how great natural hair looks and how proud they are of each other. This positive energy should be present for every student of color in every school.

Most of all, students of color don’t want to be viewed with constant suspicion and fear, becoming the targets of more — or more aggressive — policing in and out of school. We talk a lot about physical safety in schools but not enough about psychological, emotional, and cultural safety.

Students of color need to be able to walk into school every day knowing that they will be secure. This means that teachers should not be armed, that students should not be walking through metal detectors, that more teachers should look like their students of color, and that administrators have adequate funding for more school counselors.

Fourteen students died a year ago in Parkland. But since then 1,200 more children have lost their lives to gun violence. We must continue this fight to get that number to zero. Lives are literally on the line.

Alliyah Logan is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union and Youth Over Guns. Abe Rothstein is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

police presence

New studies point to a big downside for schools bringing in more police

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Local governments across Tennessee paid to add 213 school resource officers this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

It’s been a year since 17 people were killed at a Parkland, Florida high school, sparking a national conversation about gun control and a race to ratchet up school security.

Florida lawmakers, for instance, passed legislation requiring every public school in the state to have an armed guard. A Trump administration commission recommended armed school personnel, among other safety measures. Already, 71 percent of U.S. public high schools have at least one law enforcement officer who carries a gun.

While some argue that these efforts are increasingly necessary, others point out that school shootings are rare and fear that more security will backfire — making schools less conducive to learning and making it more likely for students of color to be funneled into the criminal justice system.

Now, two new academic studies provide strong evidence that some of those concerns are valid. Both released this week and looking at large groups of students, they are among the first research to directly link more police to worse academic outcomes for students.

In one case, adding police to Texas schools led to declines in high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. Another found that more police in New York City neighborhoods hurt the test scores of black male students.

“The results of both those studies, for us, put numbers to what we already know and what the experiences of young people are,” said Maria Fernandez, a senior campaign strategist for the Advancement Project, which advocates for less punitive discipline in schools.

The papers strongly suggest that police are the cause of those negative outcomes, though they aren’t definitive proof. And they don’t tell us anything about whether the police made schools safer overall. Still, they underscore how efforts to do so can have unintended consequences.  

In New York City, more police in neighborhoods hurt achievement and attendance for black boys.

One of the studies looked at the academic performance of students in high-crime neighborhoods in New York City that saw an influx of police officers instructed to make arrests for low-level offenses and conduct frequent searches from 2004 to 2012.

It found that young black boys from those neighborhoods saw test scores drop as a result of the increased police presence. Black male students as young as 11 saw those effects, which were even worse for older students, up to age 15. (The study does not have data for high school students, who might have been even more affected.)

The increased police presence did decrease violent crime in targeted neighborhoods — something that might be expected to help students do better in schools. But black boys were more frequently absent from school, by nearly 1.5 days a year, due to the policing program, potentially to avoid the threat of arrest in surrounding neighborhoods.

“Aggressive, broken-windows policing may have negative effects by undermining trust in authorities, including schools and teachers, and by leading to withdrawal and system avoidance,” write researchers Joscha Legewie and Jeffrey Fagan in the study, published in a peer-reviewed journal. “High rates of direct or indirect contact with police may also create stress and other health and emotional responses that undermine cognitive performance.”

The program had no effect for Hispanic students or black girls. Tellingly, white students were not included in the study because so few lived in targeted neighborhoods..

In Texas, hiring more school police hurt high school graduation and college attendance rates.

Meanwhile, the Texas study examines what happened when school districts won federal grants to hire police to work in schools between 1999 and 2008.

Students in middle or high schools that received a three-year grant were 1.7 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 1.9 percentage points less likely to enroll in college, compared to similar students in the same district in other years.

It’s not clear what explains these results. Unlike in the New York City study, there was no indication that these declines were steeper for black students, or that the greater police presence meant students were disciplined more often in high school.

But there was evidence that more security led to more disciplinary infractions in middle school, particularly for low-level offenses and for black and Hispanic students.

Researcher Emily Weisburst says that might have long-term consequences.

“A student’s experience with school discipline at an early age has potential ramifications for high school graduation and college enrollment,” she wrote in the study, published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Negative school discipline experiences could shape the way that students are perceived by teachers, school administrators, and peers, and may also affect a student’s confidence and attachment to school.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said that 17 students died in the Parkland shooting; it was 17 people, not all of whom were students.