The Chicago school board approved a contract Wednesday with the Chicago Police Department that will be slightly costlier than last year’s, even as some members urged the district to keep decreasing its reliance on campus police.
The contract approval also comes as Mayor Brandon Johnson, who criticized having police in schools while on the campaign trail, pivoted to adopt his predecessor’s view that local school councils should decide whether their campuses staff officers.
District officials touted an initiative that encourages campuses to consider replacing officers stationed with restorative justice coordinators, social workers, culture and climate coordinators, or other staff devoted to promoting safety.
Since the district launched the Whole School Safety initiative during the pandemic, its police contract has shrunk to less than a third of the roughly $33 million it paid in 2019. The number of police officers stationed in schools has also been cut nearly in half. Next year, the district will staff 57 police officers at 39 high schools, down from 108 officers at 53 high schools in 2020.
But Chicago’s push to pull police officers from campuses has lost momentum in the past couple of years. This spring, the local school councils at just two schools voted to change the status quo: Austin College and Career Academy went from two officers to one, and Marshall High School did away with police presence on its campus altogether.
Because of contractual salary increases, the contract with the police department approved Wednesday is going up by $180,000, to $10.3 million.
Now, some school board members say the district’s efforts to reduce the police presence need fresh ideas. That’s especially important because the majority of schools that continue to staff officers serve predominantly Black students, board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said.
“We are disproportionately policing Black students in our schools,” she said last week during a board meeting to review the agenda for Wednesday’s monthly meeting.
Todd-Breland voted no on the police contract, and board member Joyce Chapman abstained.
But Jadine Chou, the district’s safety and security chief, told school board members that she sees the stable number of police on high school campuses as a good thing after several years of pandemic upheaval and rising concern about school safety. The district largely receives positive feedback on the role officers have played, she said.
Chou said she believes that campuses where officers have been successful in cultivating relationships with students have actually disrupted the school-to-prison pipeline, though she did not offer data to that effect and acknowledged that might not be the case in all schools.
The district will study the impact of officers — and of removing them — this year, using both discipline data and surveys of students and families.
“You see it as a plateau,” Chou said. “We see it as a stabilization for the time being coming out of the pandemic.”
The district has released few details about the impact of the Whole School Safety initiative so far. Last year, Chicago Public Schools denied Freedom of Information Act requests from Chalkbeat for school-level data on officers, disciplinary referrals, support staff, and funding for safety alternatives. It deferred a request to city hall and the police department.
District officials and community groups touted safety initiative
The board also approved Wednesday $3.9 million for staff and programs aimed at improving school climate in 39 schools that have pulled one or more of their police officers in recent years. Employees at these schools will also receive professional development from five community-based organizations that have teamed up with the school district on the Whole School Safety initiative.
A shift the district is considering toward more mobile police patrols might encourage more campuses to move away from stationing officers, Chou said. “We don’t want to push people before they are ready.”
Chou also told the board that this summer the district is doing away with a contractual requirement that all part-time security officers on its campuses be off-duty Chicago Police Department officers.
After a string of high-profile school shootings over the past year, some districts have revisited their efforts to reduce reliance on police officers — even as some advocates have continued to question their effectiveness in improving overall safety. Following a March shooting at a high school that injured two educators, a divided Denver school board voted to permanently lift a ban on school police enacted in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis.
Johnson, who had said police have no place in school during the election campaign, said last week that it should be up to those local school councils to decide whether to station officers on campus. That’s even though the Chicago Teachers Union, where Johnson worked as an organizer until his election, had harshly criticized his predecessor, Lori Lightfoot, for saddling the councils with that decision.
Asked about the contract with the police department last week, Johnson said, “I think it’s important that as a city, we recognize that our priorities have to be the development of the full child, and a budgetary decision that ultimately will come down to whether or not a local school council believes that’s the best pathway forward.”
Board members and officials stressed the importance of allowing students to weigh in and even take the lead in driving school safety solutions. Some students and staff with the district’s community-based partners on the Whole School Safety initiative addressed the board on Wednesday as well.
Natalya Miner, a rising senior at William Howard Taft High School, said she was involved with her school’s Whole School Safety push over the past two years. She was the only student in the room, often wishing the effort had involved more peers.
On her campus, Miner said, the initiative had been successful because the administration and educators already had forged strong relationships with students, including an open door policy by its principal.
“The most important thing for school safety is the school environment,” Miner said. “It should truly be about the students, and how students feel.”
Board members urge expanding the district’s safety efforts
Sean Price of Build Chicago, a nonprofit that helped coordinate the initiative at Austin College and Career Academy, said that the school’s leadership focused on bringing in student and parent voices. In place of the police officer the school decided to pull, it will get a climate and culture coordinator and is also setting up a meditation room.
“This is about creating a culture of safety,” he said. “The punitive approach hasn’t worked. We’ve all seen it.”
Some board members such as outgoing president Miguel del Valle wondered if some of the lessons of the district safety initiative, including its collaborative approach, can be applied to improving safety in schools’ surrounding areas — and across the city.
Chou said she is excited about Johnson’s interest in collaborating, touting a push by the mayor’s office to team up with the district and nonprofits to provide safe activities for young people this past Memorial Day weekend.
The district opened seven school buildings that weekend, and more than 2,000 youth participated in enrichment, sports, and other activities there, even as the highest number of shootings since 2016 marred the weekend elsewhere.
Chou said the district and its community-based partners will host a Whole School Safety conference in the coming months. The district will also pilot the initiative at three elementary schools in the fall. Elementary campuses do not staff police officers, but officials felt some could also benefit from exploring ways to strengthen their climate and safety.
“There are a lot of people out there who feel this is not moving fast enough,” she said.
But, she stressed, “This process, Whole School Safety, is something we really believe in, that our schools believe in, and that we’re doubling down on.”
Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at firstname.lastname@example.org.