Defying unions, parents, and students, Chicago board keeps cops in schools
Anna McCullom, 17, looks up an officer’s misconduct records while standing outside Board of Education President Miguel del Valle’s home in Chicago on Wednesday. (Pat Nabong/AP)

CHICAGO—Defying its unions, parents and city students, the Chicago Board of Education listened to its CEO and city Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and voted 4-3 on June 24 to keep cops in the city schools.

Renewal of the $33 million yearly contract with the city police department came after a wide-ranging coalition of Chicago Public Schools unions, students, parents and even city council members demanded removal of the police and redirection of the contract’s money to social workers, counselors and other support services in the schools that could help troubled students, rather than criminalize them.

The demands came at both a two-hour-long board meeting, via Zoom, and a large public march through the Loop. But two days before, both schools CEO Janice Jackson and Lightfoot declared they back cops in the schools. The city mayor appoints both the CEO and the board, and both listened to her voice.

At issue in the two-hour virtual – via Zoom – school board hearing on June 24 was whether CPS should renew its annual $33 million contract with the city’s Police Department, or, as speakers urged, redirect the money into counselors, social workers and other personnel who can help calm student behavior the cops criminalize.

The decision angered Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, who led the parade of speakers urging the board, at the session, to yank the cops. He said the vote again showed how the mayoral-appointed school board can ignore the students and parents it serves.

“The battle to win real equity and justice for students and Chicago neighborhoods is just beginning,” Sharkey declared after the tally was announced.

“Mayoral control of our schools has been an unmitigated disaster. Our mayor has called the global movement to protect Black lives a hashtag,” he said. Lightfoot and Jackson are Black.

“So when the mayor defied popular calls to remove cops from our public schools, few of us held out hope any Board of Education she hand-picked would defy her. Rubber stamp boards of education have quite the history in Chicago — including their regular defiance of basic democracy or the will of the people.”

“As a counterpoint to this failure of leadership, our Black youth and organizers have shown enormous courage, self-determination, leadership and clarity of purpose in this struggle,” including leading the march through the Loop. “They have no intention of backing down from this critical struggle for real democracy, equity and justice for Chicago.”

“Because the people of this city once again had no voice today, we say — as we have said for years —give Chicagoans what they’ve overwhelmingly voted for twice: An elected, representative school board. It’s long past time for #ERSBnow!”

Both Sharkey and Service Employees Local 73 President Dian Palmer told the board that the Black and brown kids are the ones the police in the schools victimize. Palmer’s local represents the school’s support staffers, such as cafeteria workers, counselors and bus drivers.

CTU’s leadership on getting cops out of schools is not surprising. It was the first of many teachers unions around the country to strike – more than six years ago – over community issues, such as keeping schools open to serve Black and brown kids.

And it was forced to walk again at the start of the 2019-20 school year over short-staffing for those extra services the kids need, such as counselors and social workers. Local 73 took a hike, too, for the same reasons, while adding its members are so ill-paid they can’t afford one-bedroom apartments in Chicago.

The uproar over putting cops in schools, and particularly their disproportionate arrests of Black and brown youth, especially Black males, is part of the wider national portrait of ingrained U.S. racism, particularly among police, exposed since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, Sharkey said.

Here in Chicago the CTU has also been a strong supporter of police reform on fronts other than the fight to end police presence in the schools. It is one of numerous unions and community groups that have supported formation of the Civilian Police Accountabilty Council (CPAC), a struggle for real community control of police initiated by the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

Nationally, George Floyd’s murder, when white cop Derek Chauvin killed him by putting his entire weight on one knee ground into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, has set off daily marches and protests against ingrained racism in general and among the police in particular.

The schools are “making serious efforts” to improve, said Sharkey. “But all will be overshadowed if you keep the police in the Chicago Public Schools.”

Numerous studies, including those by the city itself, “show police do not make students or staff safer” in the city’s schools, Sharkey told the board.

“Instead, they criminalize youth behavior and unnecessarily subject disproportionate numbers of students of color, and Black students in particular, to the police, the courts and incarceration.”

The police also disproportionately maltreat the students they haul in, Palmer added. She pointed out there have been 2,354 complaints against 180 of the school resource officers” – the school system’s title for the police – in recent months. “And if you are Black or brown, you are four times as likely to be targeted as the rate against white students.”

“Schools are supposed to be a sanctuary for children, a place where they go to learn, thrive, have fun and become prepared for their future in the adult world ahead,” said Palmer, whose union represents the schools’ nurses, janitors, cafeteria workers and other support staffers.

“Instead, they are met with armed police officers and childish mischief is met with the criminal justice system” which eventually leads kids into the school-to-prison pipeline.

“What would this board say if a police officer is placing their knee on a student’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds?” Alderman Andre Vasquez, D-40th Ward, asked during his remarks.

Neither Sharkey nor Palmer, nor any of the other speakers – who unanimously urged the board to yank the cops from the schools – mentioned the Chicago Police Department’s long and horrible treatment, including unjustified police murders of unarmed Black people, in the 2.6-million person city.

But a string of recent single murders, nationally, set against a background of ingrained police repression for decades against Black, brown and Native American people, has pushed unionists into the mass marches against racism in the U.S. in general and against a police culture of racism in particular.

It’s also led to calls nationwide to “defund the police,” which in practical terms means shifting money away from law enforcement and towards the social services Sharkey, Palmer, the council members and other speakers advocated.

Jackson told the board local community school boards are responsible for deciding policies for their neighborhoods. She contended they support cops in the schools. Palmer scorned that. “We do not need a committee, or a working group or half-measures. This board and the mayor are the decision-makers,” she said.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.