Credit: John Garrison

This story was updated after the August 26 CPS board meeting.

The summer’s protests of police violence have fueled an ongoing debate about the role of police officers within Chicago Public Schools. The School Resource Officer (SRO) program has assigned Chicago Police Department officers to 72 of the district’s 93 high schools, along with one district charter high school. As a youth-led movement under the hashtag #CopsOutCPS has picketed at schools, the district’s downtown office, and CPS board members’ homes, local school councils have voted on whether or not to keep the program. Seventeen LSCs decided to end the program, while 55 voted to retain it (each school’s votes can be seen here).

On Wednesday, August 26, the CPS board voted by a 4-2 margin (with one abstention) to renew the contract with CPD on a district level next school year. The program (whose $33 million budget the district plans to reduce by more than 50 percent) will only continue at the schools whose LSCs voted to retain it. The SRO program—which has long been plagued by lax oversight and has been cast by critics as a major part of the school-to-prison pipeline—will also undergo some changes (for example, students will no longer be entered into the police department’s error-riddled gang database) and cops won’t be paid for the days they’re not inside schools as the district continues remote learning due to the pandemic.

Despite the vocal movement to remove cops from schools, the district has repeatedly cited student and parent support of the SRO program. Back in June, the board considered the immediate termination of the program, but the measure failed then by a 4-3 vote.

These divided votes are rare in a body handpicked by Chicago’s mayor and have broken down along gendered lines. Board president Miguel del Valle, vice president Sendhil Revuluri, Lucino Sotelo, and Dwayne Truss have maintained their support for the SRO program. This despite public protests that included CPS students and recent graduates being assaulted by police and student arrests this week in front of board headquarters, and despite research linking cops in schools to poorer learning outcomes. Board member Luisiana Melendez voted to end the program in June but abstained from voting this week. Meanwhile members Elizabeth Todd-Breland and Amy Rome have steadily opposed the program.

One of the sticking points in the discussion has been school communities’ perspectives on SROs. At that June 24 meeting, district officials presented results from an online survey of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members on their opinions on the SRO program. According to CPS, 66 percent of the 3,333 students who took the survey strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement “I believe our school’s School Resource Officers help to keep our school safe.” In general, the survey results presented by the district showed a favorable view of SROs from students, parents, and workers within the schools, and an unfavorable view from the “community at large.” This implied that the negative perception of cops in schools came from outsiders and not the people—especially not the students—in direct contact with the officers.

Naturally, the Reader was curious about the survey methodology and results, especially as student-led protests against cops in schools were galvanizing huge crowds across the city. How was the survey distributed? How could the district be sure that it was representative of the schools with SROs? Were measures taken to make sure no one took the survey more than once? Could we know for sure that it was really students taking the survey and not, say, their parents or random people on the Internet claiming to be students?

We first asked the district questions about the survey on June 25, and began receiving answers from district spokespeople a week later.

“The survey was distributed directly to all known e-mail addresses tied to students, staff, families, and LSC members associated with schools that have SROs,” wrote district spokesman James Gherardi in an e-mail. However, “anyone with access to the link was able to complete the survey.” In her presentation to the board, CPS chief of safety and security Jadine Chou had mentioned that the link was available on social media. Gherardi wrote that “keeping the survey anonymous was necessary to promote honest and forthcoming feedback. While outreach was targeted to specific groups, names/contact information were not collected.”

The district stated that although 10,333 survey responses were received, 4,398 were excluded because they were incomplete (respondents didn’t indicate which school they were part of or what their role was in that community). The district promised to release a “full overview” of the survey results “this summer,” but the votes on whether to keep SROs were already beginning at LSCs throughout the city and the August board vote was fast approaching. After learning that the survey had been built through the SurveyGizmo platform, which allows for easy data export, the Reader filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the data on July 8.

CPS immediately asked for a five-business-day extension to the five-business-day response deadline (which is what the law permits). On July 22 it denied the Reader‘s request claiming it was “unduly burdensome” because it would require “review of data on over 6,000 survey submissions. The survey includes highly sensitive and private information such as students’ school, grade, race, gender, sexual identity, and contains a comments section for various questions, etc.” The district also provided a blank version of the survey.

The next day, the Reader responded with a narrowed request for the data, asking the district only for student responses and to redact all identifying information except for their school and race. Since experts say that it’s Black students who are disproportionately targeted by police and negatively impacted by police in schools, we were primarily interested in students’ survey responses and we wanted to know which schools they came from and how they identified their race.

CPS never responded to the narrowed request. Based on Illinois’s FOIA statute the Reader had grounds to sue the district and ask the judge to force the district to produce the data. We filed the lawsuit on August 14 and got a December hearing date. The district turned over the data a week later.

After a preliminary analysis, here’s what we learned:

Of the 5,935 complete survey responses (ones for which respondents answered all questions, including their school and role in that community), 55 percent (3,264) came from respondents self-identifying as students.

Half of the student responses came from just ten of the 72 schools in the SRO program.

Nearly 12 percent of all student responses came from just one school—Lane Tech, whose LSC voted to remove the SRO program by a 9-3 margin on August 10.

Eighteen schools had ten or fewer student respondents to the survey, with three schools having just one student each.

Collectively, these schools have 4,000 students; most of these schools are more than 90 percent Black.

Two schools with SROs (Little Village Lawndale High School Campus, which actually consists of four schools with 1,287 students, and Englewood STEM, which has 414 students) didn’t have any student respondents in the survey.

While the district had accurately stated that student respondents’ views of the SRO program were more positive than negative, the survey doesn’t appear to be demographically representative of the schools that have SROs. Besides having students from just ten (mostly north-side) schools dominating the results, here’s how respondents broke down by race:

The Reader analyzed the 2019-2020 school year demographics for the schools with SROs based on data made publicly available by CPS and found the following:

So while the survey was relatively close to representative of Latinx students, it overrepresented white and Asian students and underrepresented Black students.

According to CPS, the district didn’t have a way of ensuring that the same respondents didn’t take the survey more than once, though Gherardi wrote in an e-mail to the Reader Monday that the district is “confident in the integrity of the survey results, which align with the feedback we received in a variety of forums.” He also said that principals were provided with the survey results that pertained to their school and “many school principals and LSCs decided to conduct their own follow-up surveys to guide their decision making process” before voting on whether to retain cops in their schools.

In at least one example, the school’s own surveying resulted in higher student participation. At Lake View High School, a student-designed and -administered survey captured 125 responses (compared to just 62 responses from Lake View students in CPS’s survey). Though Lake View’s LSC ultimately decided to keep the SROs in a 9-1 vote, nearly 60 percent of student respondents in the in-house survey said they thought CPS should eliminate SROs and reinvest the money spent on them into other things. Forty percent of student respondents said their school should eliminate SROs even if Lake View wouldn’t directly financially benefit from the decision.

Whether or not to keep cops in schools has been one of the most significant school policy decisions left to Local School Councils and many appeared ill-equipped to make it. While 46 of the 72 schools had a full LSC voting on the matter, 17 schools didn’t have a quorum at their meeting, and nine schools didn’t even have a functioning LSC to take the vote, leaving the district to decide for them. As the Triibe reported last week, some parents see getting rid of cops in schools as a threat to student safety, even while they’re unaware of other ways kids can be protected. And, as WBEZ has noted, leaving the decision to the LSCs has paradoxically furthered a key inequity: Since the schools who have booted their SROs have been mostly white and Latinx, the district’s Black high schoolers will now be much more likely to have cops in their schools than other students when they return to in-person instruction.

At the board meeting Wednesday, a number of elected officials contributed public comments that captured the polarization around the issue. Some aldermen expressed concern about the role of cops in schools and the need for other resources to be prioritized, but ultimately continued to state that SROs enhance school safety.

“I know there are many parents that do not feel comfortable allowing their children in and around their schools without officers,” said 24th Ward alderman Michael Scott Jr. As an example, he talked about an elementary school in his ward around which violent incidents occur—even though CPS only has school resource officers in high schools. “I know there are arguments on both sides of the equation and I do believe that we have to look at policing as a whole when it comes to the city of Chicago,” Scott Jr. said. “That does not mean [that] a school in a community like North Lawndale that has a very high rate of violence . . . does not feel safe when they have officers in and around that school.”

On the one hand, 40th Ward alderman Andre Vasquez talked about the dearth of information on the results delivered by the SRO program and the district and CPD’s poor track record of oversight of the officers. “We asked [the district] what guidance there was for selection of SROs and the answer we got is if the principal feels the officer is a good fit,” Vasquez said. “Thirty-six SROs have multiple complaints, [some] have five or more complaints, five officers have complaints that resulted in them having discipline . . . If this was any other vendor, if this was somebody with a contract with us, you would shut it down.”

Before the vote, board members Rome and Todd-Breland made one more plea to their colleagues to reconsider their votes.

CPS’s proposed reforms to the program for the next school year “fall short of addressing the research and the evidence that has been discussed for a long time now by youth activists,” Rome said. She also questioned the wisdom of leaving such a critical policy decision to LSCs. “Student voice in that process was recommended but optional,” Rome said. “I believe that this underscores that while LSC involvement is critical, it does not take a necessarily whole-system view of what is an issue of justice and a civil rights issue. If we pay attention to the evidence about the school-to-prison pipeline, pushing this vote to the LSCs was not the right approach in my opinion.”

“I really appreciate the young people and their allies whose organizing and protests really created the political context and space to even make these types of reforms,” Todd-Breland said. “We cannot solve system-wide civil rights issues by shirking our responsibilities as a board and pushing it on the backs of individual schools. What has changed since June? The police have not stopped killing Black people. . . . When do we decide that the historical and ongoing racism of an institution—policing—that has proven itself incapable of reform, has no place in our schools with our children? This to me is not an issue of bad apples, this is an institutional problem and the [CPS contract with CPD] is fundamentally saying that we agree to have this institution and the members of this institution with our children. So I ask this body, the Board of Education, what is your threshold for police harm? And when will enough be enough?”

She didn’t receive a response.  v