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Chicago schools will train students and staff to identify and report racism and bias incidents

Six students and district officials speak on a virtual panel about addressing racism and bias on Chicago Public Schools campuses.

At a virtual panel of students and district officials, Chicago Public Schools said it is rolling out a more thorough plan for addressing racism and bias on campuses.

Steve Hendershot

Chicago Public Schools will build a reporting system for incidents of racism and bias in schools, the district announced Thursday. Much of the work will focus on training and nondisciplinary solutions at the school level, but the district will investigate more serious incidents.

The program is called Transforming Bias-Based Harm and will include training for students and some staff on recognizing implicit bias and microaggressions. The district defines such actions as “everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional,” based on a person’s race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. 

This past fall, students at some of the district’s selective high schools began using social media to document instances of racism at their schools. They shared stories involving racial slurs, bullying, and racial profiling by school security officers. The district said that students and families would be able to start reporting incidents of perceived bias on the CPS website or by emailing civilrights@cps.edu.  

District officials Thursday did not offer many specifics about how educators would address harmful behavior among students but said cases would be referred to counselors and social workers. In addition, officials said schools would be encouraged to use restorative justice practices, such as peace circles and mediation, rather than punitive ones. More serious allegations will be investigated by the Office of Student Protections, or OSP, which formed in 2018 to investigate cases of sexual abuse.

The effort will include student input — something some student groups said was lacking during the social-justice protests of 2020.

“Our students’ bravery in standing up and speaking out against injustice was a call to action for our team and the entire district,” said Debra Spraggins, OSP’s director of investigations.

The announcement Thursday included a virtual panel discussion with four students. 

“An important part of a partnership between students and staff is learning to stay away from tokenism, and really valuing students and knowing what equality in a partnership is, versus just reaching out every once in a while or ignoring voices when it really matters,” said Corinne Salter, a Whitney Young senior who was on the panel. 

CPS is partnering with the Los Angeles-based Born This Way Foundation on a fellowship program for rising CPS 10th to 12th grade students. The Civil Rights Summer Fellowship is a paid, 30-hour program that will let students shape the new reporting effort and suggest ways for schools to respond to bias incidents. Applications for the fellowship are due Thursday, June 10.

The Born This Way Foundation was founded in 2012 by the pop star Lady Gaga and her mother, and it focuses on youth mental health. Taylor Parker, a Born This Way program associate based in Indianapolis, will help oversee the fellowship.

Following the summer program, OSP will unveil a preliminary version of its plans and ask for public feedback before the pilot program begins during the 2021-22 school year. 

The goal is to create school communities where students such as Salter feel protected from the effects of bias. “If administration and school systems kind of make that claim ahead of time — that we protect our students, and we care for these students, and we’re not going to stand for any injustices — that makes a very big difference,” Salter said.

The school board also is weighing a culturally responsive education policy that, if passed, would prioritize curriculum and texts that reflect the diversity of students’ experiences and cultures, require all employees to undergo annual anti-racism and anti-bias training, establish diversity goals in hiring across departments, and form an equity task force to review district policies. The public has until June 18 to comment.

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