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What’s The Alternative To Police In Schools?

Above photo: Demonstrators approach Gage Park after marching from Kelly High School in Brighton Park on June 6, 2020 against police violence and to demand that CPS cut their ties with Chicago police. (Photo by Max Herman).

Restorative justice.

Restorative justice programs have already proven effective at Chicago Public Schools, but lack the level of funding budgeted for the district’s contract with the Chicago Police Department.

Thousands of Chicagoans have rallied in the past couple weeks behind the demand that Chicago Public Schools end its relationship with the police department.

But a small group of advocates have been working on this issue for years, and they’ve won significant progress in recent months. We don’t know the impact of those changes yet — though we do know that alternatives to police in schools need much greater support.

A new Chicago Police Department policy implemented last August removed so-called school resource officers from involvement in day-to-day disciplinary matters. It requires screening of potential officers, including consideration of their disciplinary records and involvement with youth, and selection in consultation with school principals. It mandates training in youth development, de-escalation, restorative justice, crisis intervention and disability issues.

Those changes were spelled out in a memorandum of agreement between CPS and CPD last December — a move greeted as a “victory” that was “long fought for” by POWER-PAC IL, an organization of parents in low-income communities that has worked for school discipline reform for many years. The new policy and the MOA reflect recommendations by the city’s inspector general and by civil rights advocates, as well as requirements under the federal consent decree governing police reform. Training for school officers last summer represented “the first training offered to these officers in at least a decade,” according to POWER-PAC, which is still pushing for complete removal of police from schools.

As we all know, CPS agreed last year to pay the city $33 million over two years for the officers.

Last summer the Board of Education voted to allow local school councils to decide whether they wanted officers in their schools. It was felt that these democratically-elected local governance bodies, where parents, teachers and community members are represented, were closest to the situation and knew their needs best, I’m told. At all 70 schools where votes were taken, LSCs chose to keep the cops.

LSCs could vote now or this summer to remove police — despite Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s blanket avowal that police will not be removed, she can’t force LSCs to accept officers. Some activists are already organizing within school communities on the issue.

But there’s clearly not a general consensus on this. I spoke with one West Side community organizer, long involved with youth and schools, who stressed the capacity of officers in schools to build relationships with students, and pointed out that if school administrators do need law enforcement assistance, calling 911 is not going to get you an officer trained to deal with youth. He added that there have also been many problems with school security staff.

Another longtime organizer with similar experience, though of a younger generation, says police patrolling hallways tend to view school issues through a law enforcement lens ⁠— which means they can find criminal violations in small displays of defiance and disrespect, when kids test limits or act out. Cops trying hardest to be “good guys” sometimes react most strongly to disrespect, because it challenges their self-image, as well as their basic training to always maintain authority and control, she said.

Can training in adolescent development and de-escalation make a difference? Will restricting police involvement in disciplinary matters significantly reduce the school-to-prison pipeline? We have an experiment just commencing in Chicago, though it was suspended in March when schools were shut down. CPS didn’t respond to a request for data, including figures on in-school arrests, for the current year.

One thing we do know, though ⁠— there are alternatives to dealing with school problems that are effective and deserve more attention and support.

And when LSCs were voting last summer, they weren’t given any alternative to accepting officers if they wanted major support for school safety ⁠— a shortcoming the Chicago Teachers Union pointed out at the time. CTU advocated allowing LSCs to reallocate those funds to restorative justice programs and other alternatives.

“Restorative justice is the alternative to police in schools,” said Alternatives Inc., which has worked inside CPS for over 20 years, in a recent statement endorsing the removal of police. But “budgets for [restorative justice] capacity-building are miniscule compared to the $33 million budgeted for CPD.”

Restorative justice uses face-to-face, problem-solving processes like peace circles to guide students (or others) in taking responsibility for their actions while addressing their unmet needs and building community and youth leadership. They teach real respect by demonstrating it and by building self-respect.

And it works. According to Alternatives, schools with restorative justice lead CPS in improving school climate. Last year, in schools where Alternatives coaches trained students and staff in restorative justice, reports of misconduct dropped by 31%, out-of-school suspensions (which often lead to more trouble in and out of school for students) dropped by 50%, and “severe incident reports” were down 43.8% ⁠— significantly more than the district as a whole.

In three years of facilitating restorative justice programs at Robeson High School (now closed) in Englewood, suspensions and misconduct dropped dramatically and incidents requiring police notification plummeted.

One other thing: since it relies on training existing staff and students and doesn’t require full-time assignments, it’s a lot more cost effective than stationing police officers at schools.

“We are not asking for the impossible,” according to Alternatives’ statement. Indeed, what they’re asking for is eminently practical. It should be in every school.

  is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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