In a poll by the school district, about 70 of Chicago’s Local School Councils at schools where police are stationed voted to retain officers in their schools, the first time the representative bodies made up of parents, teachers, and community members expressed their opinion on whether to keep or remove school patrols.
But some students and council members question the integrity of the vote, which took place over the summer, and worry that opposition was not fully heard. The referendum was part of a package of reforms to change how Chicago police operate in schools.
Chicago has more than 600 schools, and the district employs security guards at most of them. But it can also opt to station police officers in some schools, and it does for about 70 campuses, mostly high schools. Of those, all voted to keep Chicago police officers stationed in their schools.
A federal consent decree governing the city’s troubled police department set a deadline for Chicago to overhaul its school policing system by the new school year, which began last week. The city has trained all its officers on school-specific policing, and the school board has approved a $33 million agreement covering how officers work in schools.
The agreement stipulates that the police department and school district heed input from school communities.
Some Local School Council members say the votes were rushed, or failed to incorporate student voices.
Veronica Rodriguez, a youth organizer with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council community group, worked with a group of students from Back of the Yards High School, her alma mater, that opposed keeping the school resource officers on campus. The students were concerned about racial profiling and feeding the so-called school-to-prison pipeline at their mostly non-white school.
The school’s local council cut off students who came to testify while letting speakers in favor of SRO officers speak, Rodriguez said. “When it was my turn to speak, I actually got scared,” she said.
Rafael Yanez, a police officer and a community member of the Back of the Yards Local School Council, said he felt the decision was rushed.
“We should have had more focus groups and conversations with parents and teachers and students,” Yanez, who opposed keeping school officers, said. “I’m not happy with the outcome or the process.”
Most of Chicago’s district-run schools have a local school council, with the exception of new schools and others. While the councils can vote on school budgets and, in some cases, choose new principals, this is the first time they have been given an explicit voice in deciding whether or not to keep officers.
They did not, however, vote on retaining specific officers. According to the district, principals will work with the police department to confirm the assignment of individual officers.
At Uplift Community High School in Uptown, Karen Zaccor, a teacher and council member, said she was concerned that rules for voting were suspended to move the school police vote forward when some members could participate via email.
“The special meeting was conducted in such a way as to minimize the ability of concerned community groups or parents or students to have an input,” Zaccor said.
And Brenda Leyva, a student and council member at Roosevelt High School in Albany Park, said she was one of only two students at the meeting where her local school council approved keeping an officer at the school. That isn’t enough student voice, Leyva said.
Ismael Cuevas, a member of the Juarez High School Local School Council, said that he voted in favor because of testimony from the security officer and the parents at his school. If he had heard any complaints about the officers at his school, he might have voted differently.
At last month’s board of education meeting, Leyva and a group of other activists with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education said that they felt silenced during meetings meant to promote community input, and that having officers in schools at all made them feel less safe.
Jadine Chou, head of safety and security for the district, said she was disappointed to hear that young people felt they hadn’t been heard in the school police reform process.
“We don’t want anyone to feel overruled,” she said.
School board members also expressed concern that schools may not have been clearly told that they have the option not to have school officers.
Chou said that schools that did not want to have resource officers were given information on how other schools dealt with safety and security. But at citywide public meetings, Chou said that schools that chose not to have school officers wouldn’t be able to use that funding for other positions.
Rodriguez, from the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, said her group doesn’t see the Local School Council vote as the end of the discussion around school police. They are running a campaign called Police-free Schools that has spread to a handful of other schools around the city.
“BPNC strong believes in removing officers from schools because that money can go to more nurses, counselors or social workers — everything that encourages alternatives to policing and decriminalizes our youth,” Rodriguez said.