Police Brutality Scandal the Focus of New Curriculum in Chicago

By Brenda Iasevoli — September 08, 2017 3 min read
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All 8th and 10th graders in Chicago Public Schools will learn the details of a police-brutality scandal that rocked the city between the 1970s and the early 1990s.

The new curriculum will focus on former Chicago police commander Jon Burge and the officers under his charge who were accused of torturing more than a hundred African Americans in their custody. (Burge has been convicted of lying under oath about his role in the abuse.)

“Confronting the sins of the past is critical to building a better future together,” said CEO of Chicago Public Schools Forrest Claypool. “It’s vital for students to closely examine past wrongs so that as future leaders they can make their community better.”

Six public schools in Chicago—three elementary and three high schools—tested the grade 8 and grade 10 curricula last school year. The lessons were designed with input from African-American community leaders, academic researchers, law enforcement officials, the Chicago Teachers Union, and CPS teachers, and are part of a measure passed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the City Council that includes $5.5 million in reparations for torture survivors. The hope is that the curriculum will help to prevent such abuses from happening in the future.

Teachers begin the lessons by playing a video of Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson addressing students.

“What happened to these Chicago citizens was wrong,” he says in the video. “As your police superintendent, I condemn it. My promise to you all is that any and all torture is in our past; it will not be our future.”

Johnson ended the message by asking students to pay close attention to the lessons, “ask hard questions, reflect on what you’re learning, and most importantly think about what you can do to make Chicago a better place for everyone.”

Over the course of the school year, torture survivors visited many of the classrooms to tell their stories and answer students’ questions. Darrell Cannon was one of them. He spent more than 20 years behind bars after being tortured into confessing to a murder he didn’t commit. He is now the outreach director for the new Chicago Justice Torture Center that provides mental-health services to victims of police violence. The Center is the first of its kind in the U.S.

“God willing, we will prevail,” Cannon said at a press conference announcing the new curriculum. “And Chicago will in fact be the leading force throughout the United States to change not only the curriculum but to change the mindset of people because racism unfortunately still does exist today.”

At the end of the unit, 10th graders create a memorial in the form of a mural, collage, or written work that educates people about the torture scandal and ensures the victims will not be forgotten. Eighth graders write an opinion piece recommending actions the community and the police can take to prevent future police abuse, or to build better community-police relations.

Alene Mason, principal of Scott Joplin Elementary, one of the schools that piloted the curriculum, said the lessons tasking students with coming up with solutions to the problems that affect their schools and communities give students a sense of justice and a feeling of empowerment.

“Especially with the racial tension that’s happening across the United States, this program allows students to have a comfortable forum to discuss and share their ideas intelligently and strategize on how to make a difference in their community,” Mason said.

Photo: Anthony Holmes, left, and Darrell Cannon, victims of torture by the former Police Commander Jon Burge, speak at a news conference in Chicago announcing new curriculum project for Chicago students addressing the violence. Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool listens at right.—James Foster/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.