Police officers who work in Chicago Public schools and other districts across the state could be required to get special training under a proposed bill moving forward in the Illinois legislature, while another bill would give funds to schools that hire behavioral or mental health counselors to help with discipline.
The bills come in the wake of scrutiny about the role of police in schools and as police hope to improve relations with Chicago youth.
Last year, a City Bureau and Reader investigation by Yana Kunichoff tallied myriad misconduct allegations and settlements involving police in Chicago Public Schools. The reporting showed that the approximately 250 Chicago Police Department officers who patrol school hallways had little oversight either from CPS officials or police brass, creating a confusing mandate as to what, exactly, a police officer’s role in schools should be.
Another report issued by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law also raised questions about the role of police in schools—among them, whether Chicago’s students become perennial police targets in the name of making schools safer.
Police reform advocates are now poised to achieve their goal of required training for any school-based police officer across Illinois.
SB 2925 passed the Illinois Senate last week without opposition. The measure would require youth-specific training for the first time for every jurisdiction that seeks to put officers in schools. While some Illinois cities and towns require their own training, Chicago officers placed in public schools haven’t had such training mandated since 2006. (CPS also employs security guards who are subject to school-specific training standards.)
“Without youth-specific training, officers will resort to what they have been trained to do on the streets: make arrests,” Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, an attorney with the Shriver Center, told City Bureau last year.
But when SB 2925 was initially filed, law enforcement advocacy groups and Chicago officials lined up to oppose it. The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, Illinois Sheriffs Association and Chicago Public Schools formally filed their opposition to the measure when it was introduced by Democratic state senator Kimberly A. Lightford. Lightford said in an interview that the opposition also included CPD.
Lightford convened a working group made up of Mbekeani-Wiley (the Shriver Center attorney who helped author the original bill) and the opposing groups to hammer out a deal. The group met weekly for months. Lightford said Mbekeani-Wiley played the role of both advocate and trusted guide doing an “amazing” job of bringing each group on board with the final version of the bill.
Lightford said she hopes that with all interested groups now on board with the revised measure, any hurdles should be cleared for the House to pass the measure and send it to Gov. Bruce Rauner by the end of the summer.
Lightford said the group stayed focused on safety issues—not school arrests, adolescent trauma or other concerns.
School safety was also Lightford’s primary concern for the measure — she believes the required training would help officers police schools more effectively. “This officer has to be more in tune with the children and their needs and their development and how they function in their school environment,” she said. “That would allow them to be able to identify some of the key players who create and cause this violence, and potential individuals who could create harm, and provide an area where the schools are safe … [and] identify students who could create a threat or create some type of harm. So I believe that [the officers’] presence could be very helpful to de-escalate situations that could lead to large, critical issues.”
Among the biggest changes between the two versions of the bill: Ten specific categories of training were pared down to a few concrete areas, with details of the training to be ironed out later by state officials; officers who have gone through similar training can apply for a waiver; and the mandatory training comes won’t be required until 2021. Illinois police departments were also encouraged to apply for federal funding to pay for the special officers’ training through the Department of Justice.
Officers will be trained in “areas of youth and adolescent developmental issues, educational administrative issues, prevention of child abuse and exploitation, youth mental health treatment, and juvenile advocacy,” according to the final version of the Senate bill.
The original bill included additional requirements: School-based officers needed to be trained in “implicit bias,” “trauma-informed care,” “child and adolescent development and psychology,” and “de-escalation techniques for limiting the use of physical force and mechanical and chemical restraints.”
Police officers’ mere presence in schools poses a host of issues, as detailed in the Shriver Center report: What are students’ rights when going about their federally required education? How is the Chicago Police Department using the information it collects on minors? Do police officers in schools keep students safe, or make it more likely those students end up with a lingering law enforcement record or behind bars, victims of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline?
Requiring some basic level of youth-specific training will hardly satisfy that larger debate about whether police in schools can at times cause more harm than good. Two days after the Senate passed the training bill, the House sent back a different bill with a wholly separate set of goals. HB 4208, sponsored by Democratic state rep Emanuel Chris Welch, passed 64-25. It called for state grants to be doled out for schools that hire non-law enforcement staff (for example, mental or behavioral health counselors) to deal with disciplinary issues. It initially called for kicking police officers out of schools in order to qualify for the grant money—a provision Welch removed so the overall measure could pass, according to the Associated Press.
The House bill is explicit: “Grant funds shall not be used to increase the use of school-based law enforcement or security personnel.”
Story by Jeremy Borden with Alex Y. Ding and Olivia Cunningham contributing.
This report was produced as part of an ongoing reporting project by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.