“Who knows how long it’s been since board of ed members have been split like this?” 18-year-old Jennifer Nava told The Washington Post. Nava, who recently graduated from CPS, is organized with the youth-focused community group Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. Though she said she felt “a little heartbroken,” Nava said she was prepared for Wednesday’s outcome — and for the longer fight ahead.
The students aren’t alone in their push: They’re joined by local labor groups like the Service Employees International Union Local 73 and the powerful Chicago Teachers Union. And after years of calling out Chicago’s school resource officer (SRO) program for its lack of accountability, training and oversight, they’re drawing support of aldermen, principals — and at least three school board members.
“As of [Tuesday], we had 120 people reach out about removing SROs and one in favor of keeping them,” Ald. Matt Martin of Chicago’s 47th ward told The Post. “It’s one of the top issues, even in public safety.”
Chicago’s SRO program has faced scrutiny from more than just student activists, particularly after a high-profile incident in 2019 when officers were seen on video dragging, punching and using a stun gun on a 16-year-old female student who was accused of acting out in class.
Chicago is just one front on the decades-long struggle over the question of how much police officers really improve student safety. School shootings have fueled heavy investment in school resource officers, though critics argue their presence more commonly leads to students of color being disproportionately criminalized.
Efforts to rid schools of police were typically nonstarters, but the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has forced a seismic reckoning with American policing and the role of officers in public safety. As a result, cities such as Minneapolis, Seattle and Denver have cut ties with police in their schools as more districts mull similar changes.
But failed bids in Los Angeles and now Chicago show there’s plenty of resistance to the movement, too.
“Defund the police” is a “nice hashtag” but contradicts what most residents say they want, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) recently told Politico. Lightfoot and CPS CEO Janice Jackson opposed ending the police contract. Both leaders said the decision should be left to an individual school’s policymaking body, the local school council.
The mayor’s reluctance was echoed by several aldermen and school board members who spoke at Wednesday’s virtual board meeting, which convened via video conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Those wary of reducing police presence in schools said officers can help protect students from neighborhood violence outside the classroom and curb fights within. Others, such as board member Dwayne Truss, feared that a top-down decision to pull police from schools would overlook the rights — and safety needs — of communities that want to keep their officers.
“I respect the position of those who believe police should be removed from schools. I also request that those individuals connect with people like me in Austin who have a different reality,” Truss said, referencing the public safety challenges in his West Side neighborhood.
Proponents of ending the police contract argue the decision doesn’t have to be an either-or choice. Martin, who spoke in favor of ending the police contract Wednesday, told The Post that schools are reluctant to give up even unwanted SROs because it results in a net loss of staff; if a school eliminates an SRO role, that money goes back to the district, not to the school’s budget.
“If you present folks with an option ‘police or nothing’, yeah, they’ll choose police,” Martin said. “But if it’s social workers, case managers, other personnel who can help address other issues a school’s having, that needs to be part of the conversation.”
The city’s student activists are determined to make sure that conversation continues.
As protesters demonstrated around the city Wednesday, at least two dozen young activists gathered outside the home of Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle as he presided over the video meeting. They were undeterred when del Valle said he would not support the measure and they urged him to change his vote.
“If anything, we’re going to put more gas on the pedal and put more pressure out there,” said Nava, the recent graduate. “This is the change we need. It might be slow, but we’re going to make sure it happens.”
She and her peers are already preparing for their next opportunities to end the SRO contract, including an ordinance in the city council and the next school board meeting. Wednesday’s vote affected the SRO contract that expires in August. The one for the forthcoming school year has yet to win approval.