Last summer, amid a wave of historic protests over police violence, youth organizers rose up and told Chicago Public Schools (CPS) they didn’t want police officers patrolling their hallways. 

The CPS Board of Education voted, in a controversial split decision, to keep School Resource Officers (SROs) in favor of a slow phase-out of the program — but the March 24 deadline for a full plan approaches, and this past fall, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) rejected 70 percent of recommendations from the SRO working group. 

Led by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office and CPD, the working group was composed of 19 people including teachers, parents, lawyers and community members who met over the course of two months in the fall. Their task was to recommend improvements to the decades-old policy that placed armed police officers at more than 50 high schools in CPS — a policy known for criminalizing Black and Latinx students. But the process for gathering input was plagued with problems from the beginning, according to members of the group. 

Initially, the working group was set to begin in June 2020 after months of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In an email to the TRiiBE, CPD said the working group didn’t start until September to prevent the process from starting just in case the Board of Education voted to not renew its contract with CPD. 

But in a public document on the city website, CPD says it delayed the process to give people more time to join the working group. By then, the CPS Board of Education had already agreed to a one-year renewal of its reduced $12 million contract with CPD for SROs, despite the summer-long protests.

The #CopsOutCps rally outside of CPS headquarters on Aug. 26. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE
The #CopsOutCps rally outside of CPS headquarters on Aug. 26. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

“What was the point of having us make recommendations?” said Oswaldo Gomez, a community organizer with ONE Northside, a CPS alumnus and a member of the working group. “It looks like a rubber stamp to me.” 

From mid-September to mid-October, the working group met weekly to discuss what changes they’d recommend to the SRO policy, with discussions led by two neutral facilitators from the Center for Conflict Resolution hired by CPD. The person overseeing the working group was Catherine Sanchez, the policy advisor for public safety under the Mayor’s office. 

Of the 54 recommendations that the working group submitted to CPD, only 16 were accepted— most of them with modifications. In a letter addressed to the working group and obtained by the TRiiBE, CPD Acting Deputy Superintendent Robert Boik responded to the recommendations, explaining why the majority of them were rejected. Attached to the letter was CPD’s official list of responses to the recommendations.

“While we recognize there will be some recommendations with which we disagree, we believe we can address most of your policy recommendations in the final policy,” said Boik in the letter. “Similarly, we will work with the Mayor’s office to incorporate as many of the process recommendations into the next iteration of the working group as feasibly possible. Regarding the handful of recommendations that fall outside of the Chicago Police Department’s jurisdiction, for example, matters that must be decided by Chicago Public Schools or Local School Councils (LSCs), we will ensure that feedback is shared with the appropriate entity for consideration.”

The #CopsOutCps rally outside of CPS headquarters on Aug. 26. Photo by Alexander Gouletas // The TRiiBE

One of the recommendations CPD accepted with modifications was related to the use of restraint on students, including handcuffing. Initially, the working group recommended that “CPD officers (SROs and non-SROs) should not handcuff or use other physical restraints on a student in a school.” Additionally, they recommended that SROs “de-escalate situations in schools without the use of restraints.”

But the response from CPD was that they would “accomodate the request” to deescalate a situation “when safe and feasible to do so” and that any use of force or restraint be “reasonable and necessary.” They also said that police officers would take a variety of factors into consideration when determining what is reasonable and necessary including the nature of the incident, the student’s age, physical size, actions, conduct and “whether such restraints are necessary to provide for the safety” of the student. CPD marked the recommendation as accepted despite changing the original language submitted by the working group.

As for the 38 recommendations that were rejected by CPD, 11 were rejected because they conflicted with the renewed contract between CPS and CPD. One of the rejected recommendations was that SROs should not be involved in any school actions unless “the event is an imminent and life-threatening event.” CPD’s response to that recommendation was that it “conflicts with CPD’s requirement as outlined” in the contract which includes patrolling the school, responding to any emergencies, and being a “resource for students” so that they have a “law enforcement figure and role model.”  

Members of the working group said that they repeatedly asked to see the current contract throughout each session so that they could make appropriate recommendations. But CPD insisted that the contract could not be shared with the group because it was still in draft form, although it had been voted on and approved by the CPS Board of Education at the end of August. 

In an email obtained by the TRiiBE to the SRO working group on Oct. 28, after their recommendations were already submitted, Sanchez shared the renewed contract with the working group members, saying that it had finally been “signed and executed.” But the renewed contract, which according to CPD and CPS was still in draft form, says that it’s been in effect since Sept. 1, 2020.

An email obtained by the TRiiBE to the SRO working group on Oct. 28.

“The timeline was counter to any kind of community engagement that was meaningful,” said Gomez. “We have the working group, we get community input as outlined by the consent decree, but you’re doing it at a time when so much of what needs to be decided on has already been decided on or at least agreed upon by both CPS and CPD.”

The other 19 recommendations were rejected because they weren’t directly related to the SRO policy. Most of those recommendations were for improvements to the working group, including a better process for selecting members to participate and creating a timeline that allows the working group to make recommendations that will be implemented prior to the start of the school year. Another recommendation was to allow the working group to collaborate with the student working group which they were told was being led by CPS. 

“We were told that CPS was going to convene a separate student working group,” said Amy Meek, senior counsel with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and member of the SRO working group. “But by the time the sessions were up, we were never able to hear anything from those students. They told us that the group of students never actually convened.” 

Beyond that, members of the working group say that most of the staff present at the meetings were either police officers, former police officers, or employees of the CPD. 

“If there’s going to be any substantial [police] reform, we have to talk to more than just the police because they’re coming at it from their perspective,” said Chelsea Biggs, LSC member at Uplift High School in Uptown and a member of the working group. 

CPS did not have a representative at the working group sessions until Oct. 1 when Greg Sain, CPS’s Director of Community Safety and Relations, began showing up. CPS declined to comment on its overall involvement with the working group. 

Members of the working group have since written a letter addressed to Mayor Lightfoot expressing their frustration over the process of gathering input and demanding that CPD incorporate their recommendations into the policy. 

In a statement to the TRiiBE, CPD said they were “grateful for those who volunteered their time and energy” into the working group and that the process was an “impactful learning experience for CPD” which has taught them “a great deal about how to improve collaboration in the future” to better their policies. 

On Jan. 26, 2021, CPS announced that it would be partnering with five community-based organizations to create a “trauma-informed” approach to safety as an alternative to SROs for the next school year (2021-2022). 

The organizations, selected from a pool of applicants, will each receive a $30,000 stipend for their participation. Their public meetings began Feb. 3 and go until Feb. 25. The CPS Board of Education is expecting to be presented with a plan for phasing out the use of SROs at their March 24 public Board meeting.

This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of CPD Acting Deputy Superintendent Robert Boik’s name. 

is a freelance writer for The TRiiBE.