Credit: Paul John Higgins (photo illustration)

During wrestling season, when the final school bell rings at Hyde Park Academy, Darren Wright changes out of the clothing he’s worn all day and into sweatpants and sneakers to become Coach Wright, head of the Thunderbirds high school wrestling team.

Training takes place in an old classroom repurposed as a gym; its floors are covered with blue mats, its beige walls splotched with paint that likely covers some student graffiti. On a snowy winter weekday evening, the room is full of high-schoolers, mostly boys and a few girls, smelling of sweat and the rubber of the mats, running through an exercise regimen Wright calls the “workout of champions”—100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 300 jumping jacks, and ten crawls on all fours up and down the stairs. They laugh and joke, their voices breathless, as they work through Wright’s drills.

Wright says he appreciates the humility and discipline wrestling teaches his athletes. “I was in seventh grade when I started,” he says, “and I’ve been wrestling ever since.” He’s been at Hyde Park Academy for 15 years, and has coached for most of that time.

The young people Wright works with say he’s always friendly and often tries to talk things out with them if they’re feeling upset.

“He is one of my mentors,” says India Coleman, a recent Hyde Park graduate who was on the wrestling team her freshman and sophomore years. “You can talk to him about anything, come to him when you have problems.”

That warmth extends to the school’s administration.

“He has a really good temperament to deal with students—a certain kind of patience,” says Antonio Ross, Hyde Park’s principal. “He’s been extremely, extremely helpful here.”

Occasionally Wright will recruit a student he encounters in a disciplinary setting to join his team—the thinking being that wrestling is a good place for kids to channel their anger and frustration more effectively.

“I get a lot of my kids because they’ve gotten in trouble,” he says.

That’s because although Wright is a wrestling coach by evening, by day he’s one of more than 240 Chicago Police Department officers who serve in some 500 Chicago Public Schools. Primarily charged with stepping into incidents that might warrant an arrest, Wright says that he and other cops play a dual role in the schools they serve: that of mentor, but also that of disciplinarian.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“They say you’re put here for a reason,” Wright says, “and my reason is to be a schools officer.”

But cops like Wright now find themselves at a difficult juncture. The national debate around policing has extended to schools, with incidents like the brutal October 2015 attack of a student in Columbia, South Carolina, by a school resource officer, as they’re usually called (in Chicago the term “school officer” is used), bringing increased scrutiny to the role police play in educational settings, and to the potential for abuse. In Chicago, the Police Accountability Task Force convened after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald found in its April 2016 report that officers were “not adequately equipped to engage with youth,” and that the relationship between the CPD and youth is “antagonistic, to say the least.” The U.S. Department of Justice investigation into CPD unveiled last month found that officers repeatedly used force on young people for noncriminal conduct or minor violations, and that in some cases officers were exonerated without being interviewed. In one complaint detailed in the report, an eight-year-old girl said she was grabbed by her hair, swung around, and choked by an off-duty CPD officer stationed at her school.

In several months of reporting, City Bureau and the Chicago Reader found a small handful of cops stationed in CPS schools with disturbing complaints on their records: Of the nearly 250 police officers serving in CPS schools as of April 2016, two have killed teenagers, one was sued for beating a minor, and one was recommended for firing by the police board. In addition, 33 school officers have nine or more misconduct complaints on their records, while 80 percent of all CPD officers have four or fewer complaints, according to data released by the Invisible Institute. Records from CPS’s own incident tracking system, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed more than 8,000 alleged incidents involving a CPD officer and students between 2013 and 2015.

Even Wright, beloved as he is by many of his Hyde Park Academy students and colleagues, has been the subject of nine separate misconduct complaints during his time as a cop.

Our investigation also found a surprising lack of oversight of cops in schools, on both the part of CPD and CPS, especially in cases where officers have been accused of wrongdoing: there are no youth-specific trainings or guidelines for school officers; there is no systematic screening of officers assigned to schools or assessment of their relative fitness to work with young people; and when an officer is allegedly involved in wrongdoing, there’s no effective disciplinary or review procedure to determine potential punishment or firing. This lack of oversight is compounded by poor communication between CPS and CPD, and between the agencies’ top brass and the principals, disciplinary deans, teachers, and other administrators who work directly with students. It also runs contrary to best-practices guidelines laid out by the DOJ and followed by most organizations that offer school officer training, our reporting found.

When asked for comment on our findings, CPS directed all inquiries about the school officer program to the police department.

CPD, meanwhile, defended its oversight and management of its school officers, saying in a statement that all police officers receive adequate training, and that officers accused of any wrongdoing had been cleared by the appropriate oversight agencies.

“Regardless of their assignment, CPD officers are held to the highest professional standards,” the statement reads. “Any allegations of misconduct are taken seriously and investigated thoroughly by the Bureau of Internal Affairs, or in use of force cases, by the Independent Police Review Authority. Every officer within the Department is evaluated individually for the appropriate fit to their respective assignment.”

Still, these assurances are cold comfort to criminal justice reform advocates, who argue that Wright and other officers like him are unfit to work with minors, raise concerns that police in schools fast-track children into the criminal justice system, and question whether police belong in schools at all.

“We cannot proactively prevent our children from having contact with the justice system,” says Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, an attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, “when CPS’s use of police officers creates a justice system within the school.”

“If we were detectives, they’d send us to detective school. If we were equestrian officers, they’d train us with horses. We’re the only unit that doesn’t get that specialized training.”

—CPD officer Darren Wright, who serves as a school officer at Hyde Park Academy

Cops were first stationed inside public schools in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s, as part of a community policing strategy designed to relieve tensions created by growing anger at aggressive policing in minority communities. The program was considered a success, and by the 1970s the idea of stationing police officers in schools had caught on with several major police departments, including those in Miami-Dade County and Los Angeles. Rising crime rates across the country, coupled with an increased focus on juvenile violence in the 1980s and ’90s, led other school districts to introduce more officers into schools. By 1997 22 percent of school districts had on-duty officers.

Chicago introduced police officers into schools in 1990, then-mayor Richard M. Daley’s first full year in office. The city had been struggling with increasing homicide rates and widespread violence since the mid-80s, and as of that June, looked to be heading into one of its bloodiest years yet. The situation seemed so dire that many aldermen began calling for the National Guard to restore peace in some of the most badly affected neighborhoods.

In response, Daley created a new school patrol unit within CPD. He introduced his plan to bring police officers into schools at a special meeting of the City Council that fall. His proposals included Operation SAFE (Schools Are for Education), which would bring two uniformed police officers into every public high school and assign additional police patrols around elementary schools. Two years later, following a highly publicized fatal shooting that took place on a Tuesday morning in the hallway of west-side Tilden High School, Daley introduced metal detectors into all high schools. Daley also instructed the commander of CPD’s Youth Division, which was charged with operating the school patrol unit, to have ongoing meetings with CPS’s head of security.

Individual officers entering the school patrol were to be trained in CPR, first aid, and conflict resolution techniques, and were advised on how to strengthen links between schools and their surrounding communities and when to make referrals to nurses or social workers. Their positions were to be funded by the Chicago Board of Education.

The new program seemed to make an impact: by 1994 Catalyst Chicago reported that violence in schools had “declined steadily and dramatically”—a change CPD officials attributed to the school patrol unit, but which principals at the time said was simply due to the presence of more adults in the building.

But punitive school disciplinary measures increased starting in 1995, when the Illinois legislature effectively handed control of CPS over to Daley; the school patrol unit was instrumental in enforcing zero tolerance policies for guns, which led to the increased use of pat downs and searches on students. The unit occasionally received criticism for its tactics—in one instance, a Cook County circuit court judge threw out three weapons cases involving CPS students, saying they had been unfairly searched.

Then, in 2006, 16 years after its creation, the school patrol unit was dissolved. There would no longer be a unit made up specifically of officers stationed in schools. Instead, officers would stay in schools but be assigned to numbered police districts and would be trained and supervised like any other cops.

CPD now says that the unit was disbanded in order to bring officers into schools who were familiar with the unique situations faced by different police districts and the schools within them. But something was lost in the transition, according to Wright and others familiar with the department before and after the school patrol unit program was killed. Wright’s career at Hyde Park Academy spans this shift, and illustrates the ways in which the patrol unit offered key benefits that officers no longer have access to today.

Wright started as a member of the school patrol unit in Hyde Park Academy in 2001, after ten years in the military and four years as a CPD tactical officer in the Sixth District. He also coached wrestling at Hirsch Metropolitan High School, and, he says, looking for a way to integrate that hobby into his day job, he asked for a transfer.

Applicants to the school patrol were put through a rigorous interview, Wright says. Officers who were selected were then put through an intensive training regimen.

“All the school officers would go to the police academy, [and] they’d bring in paraprofessionals [trained school aides] just to teach us how to work with kids on certain issues,” Wright says.

The trainings took place annually, Wright says, and were helpful to him as he dealt with the myriad of complicated situations that would inevitably come up: a young person upset because of something that happened at home who’d then take that anger into the building, a crime committed outside the school that involved one of his students.

School patrol unit officers also regularly met with CPS security officials. Wright says those meetings would often be used to clarify alternatives to arresting students, such as referring them to counselors or other in-school professionals.

But when the school patrol unit was disbanded, all these support mechanisms disappeared. The yearly training sessions stopped entirely, leaving established officers no way to refresh their skills, and newly stationed officers with little guidance.

The changes troubled Wright.

“If we were detectives, they’d send us to detective school,” he says. “If we were equestrian officers, they’d train us with horses. We’re the only unit that doesn’t get that specialized training.”

"They say you're put here for a reason," Darren Wright says, "and my reason is to be a schools officer."
“They say you’re put here for a reason,” Darren Wright says, “and my reason is to be a schools officer.”Credit: Bill Whitmire

Indeed, while all CPD officers receive training upon being hired and periodically afterward—including training related to interactions with young people—we weren’t able to identify any training specific to school officers. Multiple Freedom of Information Act requests made to CPD and CPS seeking training manuals, documents, or directives directly related to the training of school officers turned up no relevant documents, according to responses received from both agencies.

All CPD officers are required to undertake 1,000-plus hours of training when they’re recruited, including basic training on everything from use of firearms to vehicle stops and building entry tactics. Directives, such as those governing the use of force, guide officer behavior once they’re in the field.

Additionally, all officers are required to take Crisis Intervention Training, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT), and Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), according to CPD spokesman Frank Giancamilli.

“Officers also receive ongoing conflict resolution and de-escalation training,” Giancamilli says.

But none of these training programs is specific to school officers—CIT training, previously optional, has been made compulsory for field training officers. De-escalation training has been mandatory for all officers since September 2016, following the furor over the shooting of Laquan McDonald, and officers who only occasionally visit schools have been trained under programs like DARE since the 1980s. That leaves a significant gap in training that might address the unique challenges of working with children in a school setting—everything from grappling with schools as safer spaces than the streets to the challenges of dealing with young people’s developing brains and unpredictable emotions.

For his part, Wright can remember few times since the school unit was disbanded that he was asked to review his skills in any way. That means that officers new to Hyde Park Academy, including the two Wright works with, have only him or other senior officers teaching them how to calm down an upset student or gauge when an arrest should be made. “Everything ends up in the police room,” Wright says, of the many complicated scenarios he deals with throughout the school year.

The DOJ, which between 1999 and 2005 gave $725 million in grants to cities that wanted to bring police into schools, says that officers in schools must not only have arresting power but be “educators, emergency managers and informal counselors.”

But the key to this, experts say, is training.

“A police officer assigned in a school setting should get special training to that role,” says Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit that has assessed school resource officer operations in five of the country’s ten largest school districts. According to Dorn, failing to offer specialized training is “a disadvantage for the officer, department, and school system, and the students that they serve.”

De-escalation training programs have proven to be effective, Dorn says, but that’s not the same as formal, position-specific training. That training can cover topics like search-and-seizure rules in schools, which differ from commonplace searches in that the burden of proof is higher within a school; what information can be shared between police and school officials under Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines; special needs students; and juvenile law. Such programs do exist: the National Association of School Resource Officers, the biggest school officer training group in the country, contracts with school departments and police districts around the country to put new school officers through 40 hours of training on topics including developing teaching skills. At the conclusion of the training, the group administers a certification exam.

Mbekeani-Wiley says that she’d like to see CPD officers undergo dedicated school officer training—a key component of the reform recommendations the Shriver Center will release in 2017.

“CPS and CPD must ensure that the officers hired to work within the city’s schools have the tools and skill set to effectively engage our youth,” Mbekeani-Wiley says. “Without youth-specific training, officers will resort to what they have been trained to do on the streets: make arrests.”

Credit: Paul John Higgins (photo illustration)

In many ways, Wright seems to embody the kind of school police officer advocates like Dorn say they want. He sees himself as a mentor, and says he thinks carefully about the psychology of the young people he works with.

But Wright is also one of a handful of officers serving in CPS schools whose track record raises questions about his suitability for the job, and illustrates why the lack of oversight and clear disciplinary and accountability processes creates special concerns for cops in schools.

In 2009, Wright fatally shot 17-year-old Corey Harris, a student from neighboring Dyett High School.

Wright was off-duty at the time, and says he believed that Harris had a gun, and had been involved in a nearby shooting. Wright chased Harris in his car and eventually cornered him in an alley, where Wright shot Harris in the back, according to the autopsy report.

A civil lawsuit filed by Natasha Williams, Harris’s mother, claims her son was unarmed when he was shot.

“He had just got out of school,” Williams says. “The only thing my son had on him was his school ID, the ten dollars I gave him that morning, and the schoolwork paper.”

Because CPD has no review or disciplinary procedures unique to school officers, Williams’s complaint against Wright was investigated the way all use-of-force misconduct allegations against CPD officers are investigated: by IPRA.

But IPRA’s ability to curtail police misconduct and ensure consequences for bad behavior has been significantly compromised, according to the DOJ’s findings. The January report describes IPRA’s investigations as a kind of toothless plea bargaining in which cover-ups have been institutionalized and investigators routinely take the word of officers over hard evidence that contradicts their stories. The dysfunction has been so severe that in August 2016 Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would replace IPRA with a new police accountability board.

In May 2016, IPRA cleared Wright of all wrongdoing in the case, as it has in all but two of the more than 400 police shootings it’s reviewed over the past ten years. The city eventually settled with Harris’s mother for $1.24 million, an amount significantly larger than the average of $36,000 paid out by the city in police-related settlements, according to data compiled by the Chicago Reporter.

“Only God can judge me,” Wright now says of the shooting. “It’s an unfortunate incident, and I can’t take it back.”

(Wright was later commended for his role in the shooting by the 100 Club of Chicago, which honors first responders for what it calls “acts of bravery.”)

After the shooting, Wright was off work for just three days before he returned to Hyde Park Academy and resumed his interactions with students around Harris’s same age. (This was the norm at the time—in December 2015, CPD changed its rules to mandate a 30-day grace period before officers involved in a fatal shooting could return to work.) Wright was also required to meet with a psychologist, but neither CPD nor CPS responded to repeated requests about whether there was any review of Wright’s mental health or eligibility for his position following the shooting.

Thomas Trotter, who served as Hyde Park Academy’s principal at the time of the shooting, declined to comment for this story. But Trotter “knew about the incident,” Wright says. “It was in the media.”

Meanwhile, Harris’s mother marvels that Wright was allowed to continue working with high-schoolers.

“He shot and killed my son,” Williams says, “and he goes back to work.”

And Wright wasn’t the only one: In 2007 CPD officer John Fitzgerald fatally shot 18-year-old Aaron Harrison. IPRA ruled the shooting justified. But when a civil case against Fitzgerald went to trial, four witnesses contradicted his testimony that Harrison had a gun; the jury awarded Harrison’s family $8.5 million. According to data compiled by the Citizens Police Data Project, Fitzgerald has been the subject of 28 misconduct complaints—a mix of illegal search, verbal abuse, and false arrest (all of which were also deemed unfounded by IPRA) and is in the top 100 or so CPD officers with the highest number of complaints against them.

According to CPD data, as of April, Fitzgerald was still with CPD, serving in a roving car that attends multiple schools.

Credit: Paul John Higgins (photo illustration)

CPD and IPRA’s tendency to let officers accused of misconduct off the hook naturally leads to another question: What about CPS? Specifically, does the school district have the ability to review and even punish misbehavior by officers in its school?

Principals, deans, and other school leaders we spoke to said they had never received guidance from the district or CPD about what officers’ intended role was, let alone about how to handle any concerns they might have.

“I’ve never had any formal communication from CPS about the role of police officers in schools,” says Chad Adams, principal at Sullivan High School in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Adams has had a positive experience with the current officers in his school, but notes that he’d be more comfortable with a clear set of guidelines laying out “this is what a school police officer at your school is and isn’t,” he says.

Alvaro Ortega, a former dean at Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy in Ashburn, agrees. He also complains about the inability of principals to have a say in which officers are assigned to their schools.

“We do not have any control of who was assigned to us,” he says, adding that he’s worked in schools where the principal found assigned officers didn’t mesh with the school’s culture.

Principals, it turns out, can indeed flag infractions involving officers through CPS’s own reporting system for school incidents, which is known as Verify. But much like CPD and IPRA’s complaint system, CPS’s reporting system has flaws that keep it from halting bad behavior, resulting in two separate and uncoordinated accountability processes, neither of which works well.

Wright’s own history at Hyde Park Academy illustrates the complications and gaps in oversight that can arise from such a system. The Harris shooting wasn’t the only time Wright’s conduct as a police officer has been scrutinized. In January 2013, Wright was involved in another incident, this time with two students at Hyde Park Academy, that brought him under the lens of both CPD/IPRA and CPS.

The incident was documented in three separate sets of documents: a Verify report, completed by Ralph Bennett, Hyde Park’s dean of behavior, and obtained via FOIA request; a complaint submitted to IPRA by one of the student’s legal guardians, also obtained via FOIA; and in a civil lawsuit filed against Wright and the city on behalf of Christiona Kearny, one of the students involved.

These three separate accounts agree on a few things, starting with where the incident began: outside of Hyde Park Academy. They also agree on where the incident ended—in the police room, the base of operations for the school’s officers. At Hyde Park it’s barely more than a storage room, nearly filled by three blond-wood desks, one of which is plastered with a faded poster of President Obama. And on the door are signs with a printed warning: IF YOU ENTER THIS ROOM, IT’S ON POLICE BUSINESS.

Beyond that, the three accounts differ markedly.

According to the January 2014 lawsuit, on January 17, 2013, several students were involved in a fight outside the school. The suit claims that although Kearny wasn’t involved in the fight, Wright took her into custody anyway when he came to break it up. While Kearny was in custody, he “struck [Kearny] in the face with his fist,” the suit alleges. The city settled the suit for $15,000.

The IPRA complaint, filed six days after the fight, offers additional details and paints a confusing scenario. The fight led to the arrest of the two victims in the complaint, one of whom is likely Kearny, although their names were redacted by CPD.

The situation started with an argument between two students outside the school and grew to involve at least four other students. According to the complaint, as Wright attempted to break up the fight, he handcuffed two of the teenagers, identified as the two victims, and brought them up to the police room. From there, the complaint alleges, he punched the first victim in the face, choked the second victim, and pushed her by the back of the neck. A police report notes that one of the victims had a swollen eye.

The IPRA files include a statement Wright made to the commander of the Third District, in which he says that he “did execute an open hand stun to the face” to “gain control over an arrest situation.” The arrest report, which names Wright as the victim and complainant, notes that one of the arrestees hit Wright on the left side of his face.

IPRA ruled not to sustain the complaint, as it has in all complaints against Wright.

The Verify report, meanwhile, lays out a starkly different scenario, one that doesn’t hint at the allegations of misconduct. It notes what happened as follows: A student, whose name was redacted from the records we obtained, was involved in some kind of shouting match with another student outside the school. A police officer, likely Wright, told the first student to leave the area. When that student didn’t comply, Wright took her to the police room to arrest her. But once in the police room, the student “became physically resistant to Officer Wright,” according the report, “and began swinging [her] arms, hitting [Wright] in the process.”

Wright disputes the version of events detailed in the IPRA report and complaint. Moreover, he says his relationship with Kearny remains positive.

“She graduated this year,” Wright says. “She needs to contact me for anything, she knows she can.”

Attempts to reach Kearny for comment were unsuccessful.

(Wright has also been accused of rape and/or sexual assault once, of excessive or inappropriate use of force three times in addition to the Kearny case, and of conducting an illegal search once. IPRA ruled all of these complaints unfounded, and Wright says that in the sexual assault complaint in particular he was unfairly accused. We were unable to obtain records related to the other complaints made against Wright. CPD failed to answer FOIA requests for all but the Kearny complaint, and IPRA rejected similar FOIA requests because the records either pertained to juveniles or were subject to the 2014 Fraternal Order of Police injunction, which blocked the release of several decades of citizen complaints against police.)

The marked discrepancies in these accounts suggests the first of several problems with CPS’s reporting system. Namely that although principals can flag incidents like these in Verify, they don’t have access to complaints made to CPD—complaints that might offer information beyond or in at school what school administrators have access to themselves.

Apart from that, CPS isn’t obligated to investigate incidents involving school officers based on what’s reported in Verify, according to interviews with more than a dozen school officials, attorneys, and teachers. But even if the district did want to pursue action, there is no clear process for doing so, sources say. Nor does the district have the ability to punish officers. The best a principal can do, sources say, would be to report an incident to an officer’s sergeant and hope that the district would then remove the officer from the school.

That said, all school personnel are mandated by law to report child abuse to DCFS—any physical injury that wasn’t accidental, as well as excessive corporal punishment by parents, family members, or “any employee or contractor at the child’s school.” In a January 2014 memo, the DOJ further charged administrators with ensuring student safety and enforcing laws that ban discriminatory disciplinary measures, even if they’re carried out by contractors, like school officers, not directly employed by the school. (Officers are technically contractors, per an intergovernmental agreement between CPD and the Chicago Board of Education.) All this suggests that CPS does bear some responsibility to further investigate and report use of force against students by police officers in its schools, even if the district doesn’t see it as
its role.

In the meantime, reformers say simply sharing information between CPD and CPS would be a good start in reducing any potential harm to students.

“The conflicting narratives in IPRA’s investigative report, CPS’s Verify System, and the civil complaint filed thereafter demonstrates the need for CPS, CPD, and the city to routinely report, review, and evaluate the performance of police officers assigned to schools and share that data with each other,” Mbekeani-Wiley says. “This may prevent the assignment of police officers that students need protection from.”

“Without youth-specific training, officers will resort to what they have been trained to do on the streets: make arrests.”

—Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, attorney with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law

Critics of police officers in schools see these cops as a crucial link in the “schools-to-prison pipeline,” in which punitive and zero-tolerance policies within schools funnel young people into the criminal justice system. Dealing with misbehavior through a police officer, rather than, say, a restorative justice counselor, can be a fast track to a criminal record, they say.

Ortega, the former dean at Sarah Goode, says officers serving in schools rarely give second chances to young people who’ve done something wrong.

“Once a student does some behaviors and finds themselves as a criminal in their eyes, they couldn’t really get out of that,” he says. “They were so quick to say, ‘Come on and get him locked up.’ ”

In 2014, Christion Gunn was a 15-year-old student at Foreman College and Career Academy in Portage Park when he was involved in an altercation at school. According to Gunn, he saw another male student hit a girl. No one intervened, Gunn says, so he stepped in. Shortly after, Gunn says, the school’s officer, along with a security guard, broke up the argument and took Gunn to the principal’s office.

There Gunn was accused of punching a security guard, he says, and was told he’d be be arrested for his role in the fight. He was charged with aggravated assault and forced to repeat his sophomore year. Moreover, his relationship with the school’s leadership was ruined, he says—they’d eventually motion to have him expelled. (Foreman’s principal, Wayne Issa, declined to comment on the case.)

Although the charge against him was eventually dropped, Gunn, who’s completing his degree at Association House High School, says that because the charge was used to expel him, much of the damage had already been done.

Although Gunn was spared time in prison, he thinks that cops involved in incidents like his unnecessarily escalate everyday situations that can be resolved without intervention from law enforcement. If the situation had been handled only by school security guards, he argues, they could have asked him to sit down and cool off without resorting to an arrest.

“Personally, I don’t think police should be in school systems,” he says. “It ruins the education process.”

The research bears up his concern. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Educational Sociology found a link between arrests of high school students and the propensity for them to drop out of high school. A 2008 study by the Council for a Strong America, an antiviolence nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., found that young people who drop out of high school are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than are their peers. And a study published in a 2011 issue of Justice Quarterly found that having an officer in a school more than doubled the rate of referrals to law enforcement for simple assault, and made discipline more punitive across the board.

Research also suggests that relatively few students arrested ended up in the criminal justice system because of a serious offense. An analysis of arrest data by WBEZ found that of 4,600 arrests on school grounds in 2011, only 14 percent were for felonies—meaning the rest were arrests for relatively minor misdemeanors.

Nor is this punishment applied evenly. School officers are most often stationed in low-income and minority schools. And mirroring racial disparities in the criminal justice system as a whole, a report by the police abolition group Project NIA found that 75 percent of young people arrested in schools in 2011 and 2012 were African-American, despite their accounting for only around 40 percent of CPS’s student population.

Representatives of the Chicago Teachers Union say they’d like to see resources that go toward officers redirected to professionals like counselors or social workers—a 2016 report from the 74, a news site covering education, calculated that there were about twice as many officers as counselors nationwide.

In 2015, CPS released a revised student discipline code that attempted to limit suspensions, and around 100 schools have restorative justice counselors who provide a regular alternative to cops—they aim to solve conflicts through the use of “peace circles,” which bring in people affected to resolve a conflict through discussion and encourage the school to work through problems with students rather than immediately disciplining them.

Later this month the Shriver Center will release a list of recommendations for improving how school officers function in CPS schools—recommendations it’s already begun to discuss with CPS. Among the suggestions: CPD officers must have clear guidelines that distinguish between disciplinary misconduct and criminal offenses; they must be provided with additional training that teaches them how to effectively work with young people; data related to the school officer program must be published regularly; schools with stationed officers must increase student access to counselors; and any changes to the school officer program must be made with the involvement of community partners.

“We hope that the data and research collected in our report will be used . . . to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline,” the Shriver Center’s Mbekeani-Wiley says.

Gunn now works with the Voices of Chicago Youth in Education (VOYCE) Project, a youth group organizing to break the school-to-prison pipeline at its source—schools’ discipline systems. The group was instrumental in passing SB 100, a state-level bill that makes suspension or arrest a last resort within schools. It’s also part of the Transforming School Discipline Collaborative, which seeks to offer concrete proposals for state-level changes in school discipline. Members are now working on a campaign to advocate arrests only for felonies within schools, more comprehensive mental health services, and training for school staff on conflict resolution.

But many criminal justice reformers ask whether police belong in schools at all.

Mariame Kaba, Project NIA’s director and a longtime antipolice activist who coauthored a 2012 report on arrests in schools, says that cops exist to arrest people—a reality no amount of training or improved guidelines can change. Cops, Kaba says, “aren’t supposed to be conflict resolution counselors . . . it expands their reach and mandate and asks them to take on things they shouldn’t be taking on.”

Project NIA is a member of the Dignity in Schools campaign, a coalition encompassing organizations in 27 states, including Illinois, that are working to remove officers who patrol in school.

For his part, Wright rejects calls to eliminate police from schools.

“Anybody tell you they don’t think police officers are very necessary—they are,” he says. “In some schools, you really don’t need them, but in certain schools it’s a must.”

But fundamentally Wright and the reformers have more in common than one might expect. Wright says he would love to see a return to the days of the school patrol unit, when CPD provided him and his fellow officers with additional training and other forms of support.

After all, he asks: Who else is going to “build that rapport,” as he puts it, to help his students develop positive associations with police?

“You build a trust with the kids,” he says. “Once they graduate, they go on and do good things and never forget you.”   v

This report was produced in partnership with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.