School Climate & Safety

School Police Operations to Get an Overhaul in Two Big-City Districts

Leaders seek to curb police intervention
By Stephen Sawchuk — July 03, 2019 8 min read
Mayor of Chicago Lori Lightfoot speaks during her inauguration ceremony Monday, May 20, 2019, in Chicago.

Two of the nation’s largest school districts are revising their approach to school policing, highlighting an ongoing, complex debate in these post-Parkland days: Do police belong in schools? When—and under what conditions—should they be used?

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio late last month announced the first revision in 20 years to the agreement between the city’s school district and police department. The new pact moves away from a so-called “zero tolerance” approach to one minimizing police intervention in schools, and the city is coupling it with a flood of social and mental-health resources meant to curb disruptions before they escalate.

Chicago’s efforts to craft a new school policing agreement, meanwhile, have thus far been conducted mostly behind closed doors. And newly elected Mayor Lori Lightfoot, seemingly frustrated by a series of searing independent reports faulting the city’s sluggishness in revamping its school policing arrangement, has publicly questioned whether police officers are appropriate first responders in schools.

Both cities’ reforms come in the midst of two debates on school climate and safety that are playing out with distinctly different racial subtexts across U.S. districts. Some communities have embraced the presence of more school police—driven largely by fears of school shootings and other violence. In other communities, including New York and Chicago, youths of color have been among the loudest voices pressing to reduce the imprint of school police. Many civil rights organizations argue that police have no place in schools and say they feed a “school to prison pipeline,” which disproportionately leads students of color into the juvenile-justice system.

Derion Smith, 18, a rising senior at Chicago’s Mather High School, said what strikes him most about having police in his school isn’t even what they do: It’s what they don’t do.

Teachers, counselors, and even security guards ask students how they’re doing from time to time, he explained. The police officers, though, just stand silently in the hallways.

“We don’t have any type of connection with the police officers,” Smith said. “Only time they talk to us is when something bad happens or a student gets into a fight or a student is crying or anything like that. But they don’t check up on us every once in a while.”

A New Pact in New York

It’s hard to get a clear national picture of the school police force. There are about 44,000 full- and part-time law enforcement officers in schools, according to federal data from 2013-14, of which a subset hold special training for dealing with youth and are generally called school resource officers or SROs.

Such officers are historically uncommon, but the widely publicized school shootings of the 1990s caused their numbers to boom. There is little research on the effects of SROs on school safety or climate and the scope of their duties, and even their oversight varies: A nationally representative survey by the Education Week Research Center found that some school districts, primarily urban ones, manage their own school police force, while in a majority of districts the officers are assigned by local police departments. The latter is the case in both New York and Chicago.

Both cities are examining an overlooked mechanism in school safety policy: a memorandum of understanding or formal agreement between school districts and the local police force. Safety experts say those agreements should at a minimum specify the selection criteria for SROs, the scope of their duties—including what student offenses or incidents they will be responsible for—and a method for evaluating their performance.

New York’s new agreement specifies that educators should address most instances of student misconduct, while school police should use diversionary tactics in place of arrests or summonses for low-level offenses or misdemeanors, including graffiti, marijuana possession, or alcohol consumption. And they should arrest students at school only for violent offenses or felonies.

It’s a striking move away from the language of the 1998 MOU, which directed educators to “promptly report” to the police any criminal act. The new agreement allows individual schools, in consultation with the two city agencies, to determine whether schools will continue to use metal detectors, long a flashpoint in debates over school discipline, school climate, and the civic messages those devices send about surveillance.

In addition to those revisions, the city has rolled out a multimillion dollar effort to provide up to 200 new school social workers and curriculum to strengthen students’ emotional well-being. (See box below.)

Not every New York school has received social-emotional-learning or restorative-justice supports in the past, and principals and teachers in the city have reported mixed feelings about both. The new policies send a unified signal about the city’s approach to keeping kids safe and in school, officials said.

“The majority of our kids are not being suspended. The majority of our kids are not being arrested,” said Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, a senior education adviser at City Hall. “But a disciplinary system that overwhelmingly burdens those punishments on black, Latinx, and special education students has to be improved, and these changes pave the way. At that same time, there is a tone that these changes create across our system that will make improvements for every kid and the adults as well.”

Playing Catch-Up

If New York is trying to forge a new path, Chicago is playing catch-up on an extraordinarily compressed timeline.

For more than two years, the school district has lacked even an MOU with its police department. When the city’s Office of Inspector General released a report on school policing last September, it found that the police department could not even definitively say how many officers were in schools, and noted the two agencies’ lack of SRO recruitment, selection, and training processes. In June, a follow-up report found that the city had made little progress in most areas.

The clock is ticking. The U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing assessment of the city’s police force in 2017, noting a pattern of racist policing and nearly $1 billion in settlements over police conduct. A subsequent federal consent decree to reform policing devotes just four pages to school police officers, but they are significant, requiring the screening of officers and training on youth development and cultural competency. The decree also prohibits Chicago police officers from administering school discipline.

It stops short of requiring a formal MOU between the two city agencies, but says that they must make every effort to craft one.

In a testament to how complex that process has been for the Windy City, a spokesman for the mayor’s office referred a reporter back to the school district, where a district spokeswoman stressed that it’s continuing to solicit input from the community and parents. She said local school councils formed of principals, teachers, and parents will get to decide whether or not to hire officers for their buildings.

It’s not clear how often the two agencies have met, and many city groups have criticized the community forums held by the police force, only one of which has been public.

Chicago will need to move fast to meet the timeline specified in the consent decree, which demands that the city’s new policy be developed before the 2019-20 school year. There are just two school board meetings before school gets underway again. (The Chicago school board is appointed by the mayor and has historically rubber-stamped most of the district’s policies.)

Smith, the Chicago rising senior, is one of the students who volunteers with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE, which advocates for fewer police and is closely tracking the school police debate.

He feels part of the problem has to do with unclear roles for the officers, especially when a student is disrupting class.

“I think the teacher is just trying to get a security guard, but the police officers step in as a security guard and try to get the student out of the classroom,” Smith said.

He doesn’t think schools should employ police officers. But if they must, he thinks they should have training to establish better relationships with students. (The school’s principal did not return a request for comment.)

National Context

In the wake of Parkland, many states have considered or passed school safety legislation touching on the role of police. Florida, for example, now requires every school to have a police officer or other armed personnel, and districts there are scrambling to find and hire qualified individuals.

Their specific requirements on how SROs should be trained differ. Some 28 states specify some level of training for SROs, and that number appears to be on an uptick, according to the Education Commission of the States. But many states still leave it solely up to the local agencies to outline details of school police.

In New York City, meanwhile, teachers hold a host of opinions about the police reforms and the new package of supports. Many are waiting to see how they’re rolled out, said Mike Schirtzer, a social studies teacher at Leon Goldstein High School, who does see a need for school police, but also supports the idea of de-escalation training for teachers and for SROs alike.

“I think that no matter where anyone is coming from—left, right, center—there is a concern if you have a student who’s disrupting the education of the other students, what do you do?” said Schirtzer, who also sits on the city teachers’ union’s executive council.

He’s skeptical, though, of how much of a dent some of the city’s new resources will make. The new social worker commitment is a start, but New York has 1,700 schools and other constraints—including a hiring freeze on school counselors, he said.

Meanwhile, safety experts caution against the natural temptation to view new police agreements as an endpoint.

Any school that decides to hire or retain an SRO will need to have additional conversations about what they want the officer to do, noted Sheldon Greenberg, a professor of management at the school of education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

“In one school the priority may be to work with counselors, aid students coming forward with concerns from the community; in another school [it’s] to reduce bullying, and in another school to focus on more traditional—what we call hardcore—security measures: monitoring the metal detector, the [closed-circuit TV] cameras,” he said. “The work is contingent on the needs of the school—and the fact is some schools don’t have needs that even warrant SROs.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as School Police Systems to Be Revised in Chicago, New York

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