STOP at CPS. Credit: STOP

For Chicago Public Schools students, walking into school with no police this fall is going to be “an absolutely great feeling,” said Anna Durr, a Hyde Park Academy High School alum and restorative justice coordinator with Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP). “The biggest thing for me is the culture shift. Folks feel like safety is the issue, but [it’s] the whole culture: how we treat each other, how we show up.”

Starting fall of 2024, there will no longer be any police working as school resource officers (SROs) in CPS. The new policy, passed by the Board of Education in February, is aligned with a significant number of other school districts. According to a report from the advocacy nonprofit Chicago Justice Project, 10 percent of the nation’s largest school districts have reduced the number of police in schools since 2020, and another 27 percent have removed police completely. 

In 2020, Local School Councils (LSCs) in high schools across Chicago voted on whether to keep police on their respective campuses. Fifty-five schools kept one or two police officers, and seventeen schools removed them completely. Until then, LSCs at schools that currently have police will create safety plans and receive up to $80,000 from the district to implement them. 

The Chicago Justice Project’s report cites studies that have found a relationship between hiring police in schools and an increase in suspensions and expulsions. Compounding that issue is the fact that schools are more likely to suspend, expel, and arrest Black students, Indigenous students, and students with disabilities. 

Black and disabled students are overrepresented in school arrests. In 2015, about 40 percent of CPS students were Black, but 70 percent of in-school arrests were of a Black student. Studies have consistently found discrimination in school discipline. But in 2020, nearly all of the city’s LSCs at majority-Black schools voted to keep their school resource officers, meaning Black students would be far more likely to interact with police at school than white students.

These disparities also extend to school discipline that does not include police. According to CPS, schools suspended 20 percent of Black boys during the 2018-2019 school year, compared to 4 percent of white boys and 2 percent white girls. 

Proponents of school resource officers argue that removing them will make schools less safe for students. Clifford Scott, who has taught English for ten years and been a dean for sixteen at John F. Kennedy High School on the Southwest Side, said he’d prefer to have police. 

“I thought it was great to have them in the building [to] serve as a deterrent and just to be that presence of authority,” Scott said. “I think Chicago being one of those cities that’s known, unfortunately, for its violent behavior and high homicide rate, having a police presence should be a priority in schools.”

The report says studies have found no evidence that police in schools reduce crime or gun violence. There is, however, a correlation between police in schools and student arrests. Schools with a police officer were four times more likely to call the police on a student. And police presence can have a chilling effect on students confiding in adults, according to critics.

“A lot of my students don’t open up to a lot of people in fear of, ‘If I say the wrong thing, [my teacher’s] going to go back and tell somebody,’ and it turns into a bigger issue,” Durr said. 

Researchers have found that police presence in schools also increases the number of drug- and weapons-related crimes. A 2020 study compared thirty-three public schools that added school resource officers with seventy-two similar schools that did not, and found that heightened police presence increased the number of reported crimes, suspensions, and expulsions. This finding has been  persistent across studies: a 2015 systematic review of published research on police in schools found that police presence was consistently associated with increased suspensions and arrests.

Research has suggested that the correlation between police in schools and heightened school crime rates is not because there is more actual illegal conduct, but because conduct that would otherwise be dealt with by administrators without involving the criminal system instead defaults to the police when they are already in the building. This has serious implications for the arrested student and the school to prison pipeline, but does not clarify if students’ actual underlying conduct was impacted by the presence of school police. 

Report author Anna Bryant said she was initially interested in this research because the harms are consistently documented and the benefits are unproven. “I was under the same assumptions that [some] people have about police in schools being something that’s needed for school security,” Bryant said. “Then I ended up digging into it for a school project, and I realized, wait, all of this literature is showing that police in schools have these harmful impacts, and that they’re not actually making our schools safer.”

Bryant noted that a “relatively small number” of schools in Chicago currently have police officers. “There’s only fifty-seven School Resource Officers currently in all of CPS,” she said. “So I think [parents can] look at that and say, ‘Okay, there’s all these schools that are able to function and be safe.’” 

Bryant’s report found that organizers have advocated for the removal of police from schools in twenty-seven of the nation’s thirty largest school districts. In many, including Chicago, Charlotte, Columbus, and San Diego, the campaigns were led by students. Notably, these movements were not calling for reforms to school police like increased training or improved recruitment. Activists called for the complete removal of police from schools. 

“For students, there’s a lot of imagining of what it would be like without SROs, especially the ones who have been pushing it for so long,” Bryant said. “And so, they have a great picture, I’m sure, which is why their voices are so important. Collectively, as a society that’s been so reliant on policing for so long, it’s kind of hard for us to think, ‘Wait, okay, are they really needed in this situation? What could potentially be better for our safety and for our schools?’”

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After twenty-six years teaching at his school, Scott had a different view of what’s required for safety, and particularly safety from violent crime. “People are speaking out against the police and saying they aren’t necessary, but they absolutely are,” he said. “And sometimes people pretend like they don’t need the police until they need the police. So I’d rather have them and not need them than need them and not have them, that’s my view.”

He added that during passing periods, he stands in the hallway to maintain an authoritative presence and deter disruptive behavior. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. [The students] know who I am,” he said.

Scott said he supports the CPS’s shift to emphasizing restorative justice by moving away from suspension and expulsion. “Statistically, minority students were being suspended throughout the district overall at higher rates than other students,” he said. “And just looking at students we lose in the school system through academic failure or numerous behavioral infractions, they end up in prison, with the school to prison pipeline…the restorative intent I think is good.” 

At Hyde Park Academy, students can participate in restorative justice circles and a social justice program run by Durr. She said they’re constantly working to create a safe place together and imagining what it would take to feel safe at school. When she asks them what makes them want to come to school, she gets a lot of reasons why they don’t.

“But when we added the safety question to get deeper, they talked about their friends, teachers they feel hear them; they talked too about [how] their parents want them to show up,” Durr said. “Then we ask them what would make them want to show up, and a lot of them talk about if we have a barber school, we had cosmetology, we had nursing, we had a music program that actually included a studio. And just amenities, having more people they actually feel like care about them.”

The report found that some cities completely removed police from schools, only to bring them back later. Three of the eight districts that completely removed police from schools brought back some officers. “I just think that the debate is not going to end once the officers leave the building,” Bryant said.

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Micah Clark Moody works at Civil Rights Corps where she investigates pretrial jailing systems across the country, particularly in Los Angeles. She is also a researcher who has worked as a court watcher in Cook County Bond Court.

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  1. It’s fascinating to see how the absence of police in schools is being embraced as a positive change by many. The shift towards a more restorative approach, as highlighted in the article, seems crucial in changing the school culture and promoting a safer environment. This perspective is particularly interesting when considering the reported lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of police presence in reducing school crime. It’s also heartening to hear from those directly affected, like Anna Durr, who celebrate the cultural shift towards mutual respect and understanding within schools.

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