One in 10 school resource officers stationed within Chicago Public Schools have received 10 or more misconduct complaints, operating in a system with little oversight and no specialized training, a new study by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law states.
According to the report, titled “Handcuffs in Hallways: The State of Policing in Chicago Public Schools,” two-thirds of the 250 SROs within Chicago Public Schools have had at least one complaint filed against them.
But a lack of accountability or even a formalized process to handle complaints has left those same officers patrolling the halls in dozens of high schools across the city.
“We have to be careful to ensure our public school system is not being transformed into a justice system,” said Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, a community justice attorney with the Shriver Center who authored the report. “A lot of times people talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, but our current use of police officers in schools is essentially a criminal justice system in itself – they have a police room within every school that has an officer where a child can be arrested, booked and processed.”
Officers placed within CPS schools are not required to complete any special training – a rarity for SROs, according to Mbekeani-Wiley – and principals have no hiring or firing power as the officers remain employees of the Chicago Police Department.
Eleven percent of those officers have seen 10-plus complaints, and misconduct settlements for Chicago SROs topped $2 million between 2012 and 2016 for activities occurring both on and of school grounds.
“Our current use of police officers in schools is essentially a criminal justice system in itself – they have a police room within every school … where a child can be arrested, booked and processed.”
The study was released Tuesday, about a week after reporter Yana Kunichoff reached the same conclusion in a story posted on the Chicago Reader’s website. She and the City Bureau spent months looking into district policing policies, but found CPS is almost entirely removed from any officer oversight.
“There’s not even a job description for CPD school officers,” Kunichoff said. “When anything does happen, CPS has no formal guidelines for determining any misconduct or anything else in the way they do if there were (reports of) child abuse from a parent or another teacher.”
In 2010, the district had full-time officers assigned to 97 schools. Since then, that number has dropped to 75 high schools. CPS says it has also started training principals on the role of SROs to make sure officers are only getting involved in situations that are criminal in nature or present a serious safety threat to students or faculty.
Of those 250 SROs, Kunichoff found two have killed teens, one was sued for beating a minor and another was recommended for firing by CPD’s Independent Police Review Authority. Her story focuses on an officer at Hyde Park Academy who’s been the subject of nine misconduct complaints, but remains at the school and even coaches its wrestling team.
CPS data shows police notifications dropped almost 40 percent – from nearly 5,200 to about 3,200 – between the 2012-13 and 2015-16 school years. Over that same period, the district says out-of-school suspensions fell 67 percent and expulsions declined by 74 percent.
CPS spokesman Michael Passman said the district has worked to overhaul its school conduct practices, replacing punitive discipline with restorative efforts aimed at more effectively addressing student needs.
“As part of our reforms, we have reduced the number of police officers and security personnel in schools, while strengthening our social and emotional supports for students,” he said. “School climates have improved under our current approach, and we have seen a 39-percent reduction in police notifications since 2012.”
But Kunichoff said CPS’ incident management system had logged “more than 8,000 alleged incidents involving a CPD officer and students between 2013 and 2015.”
Mbekeani-Wiley says officers facing egregious allegations need to be removed from schools during the investigation process, adding CPS and the Police Department also need a transparent complaint system open to students and members of the public as well as administration and officers.
Her report makes a number of recommendations to the district on ways to build accountability and improve relationships between students and officers. Those include formally defining the role and responsibilities of SROs within schools and including best practices from across the country when training and screening officers.
“Not everyone is fit to work with kids, and that screening process has to take that into consideration,” she said.
“Are they aware of school-based legal issues, are they aware of understanding child development and psychology and if not, are they willing to learn that? Are they good at interacting with young people from different and diverse backgrounds? Those are things that must be taken into consideration prior to assigning an officer into a school.”
Passman said the district appreciates those recommendations and will “seriously consider all potential opportunities to maintain our safe school environments while further strengthening school climates."
But without buy-in from parents, administrators and the Police Department as well, Mbekeani-Wiley says those recommendations have no force behind them.
“For the Chicago Police Department, to be seen as a legitimate source of safety is a way of ensuring public safety,” she said. “If people can rely on the Police Department to protect them as opposed to seeing them as someone they need protection from, that works to benefit not just children, but the city as a whole.”
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