Parents want the real story

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Andres Durbak

photo by John Booz

Andres Durbak

On numerous occasions last school year, Sonya Jacobs’ daughter Ashley Charles called from Crane High to tell her mother she’d heard rumors of an impending fight and feared for her safety.

Jacobs, whose son was murdered four years ago, was not about to risk having her daughter caught in the middle of a brawl. So every time she got a call, Jacobs dropped everything to pick Ashley up, sign her out of class and hustle her back to the safety of their second-floor apartment.

The scenario happened so many times that Ashley failed her final-period class and Jacobs became increasingly nervous about the school. While Jacobs’ daughter could have been exaggerating, playing on her mother’s heightened sensitivity to get out of school early, Jacobs had no easy way to get solid information about the level of violence at Crane.

“I want to get her out of there,” Jacobs says. “I don’t feel comfortable with her there.”

Jacobs says she feels the school’s staff have been mostly dismissive of her concerns.

Solid information about violent incidents, police involvement and discipline would help parents navigate some of these issues, says Nelida Torres of POWER-PAC, a parent advocacy group brought together by the non-profit Community Organizing and Family Issues.

“It would be key for parents to be able to figure out if learning is happening or if principals and teachers are spending all their time doing this other stuff,” she says.

For Jacobs and other parents, finding out whether their child’s school is a safe haven can be difficult. CPS has yet to make school-level data on serious offenses, including incidents that sparked calls to the Chicago Police Department, widely available to parents and the public. And the district has no way of verifying whether principals report violations of the Student Code of Conduct to the Office of Safety and Security, as they are supposed to do.

Indeed, Jacobs’ story is evidence of this two-fold problem. Her worries about security at Crane are backed up by police reports, but the reports submitted to CPS by the school paint a rosier picture.

Last school year, police were called in 113 times to respond to violent incidents at Crane, yet administrators reported only 47 incidents to CPS, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of police reports and CPS incident reports for the 2006-07 school year.

Crane is not the only school with lax reporting: At 13 other high schools, police reports about violent incidents outnumbered school-generated reports made to CPS.

CEO Arne Duncan says he knows the district has had problems with underreporting of violence in the past, but adds that he feels schools have gotten better in recent years.

Ultimately, Duncan says, “I want the truth, so we can deal with the situation.”

A neighborhood problem?

At Crane, police reports show that in all but three of the 39 weeks that school was in session, at least one assault, battery or theft took place inside the building or on the grounds of the West Side school. During 14 of those weeks, three or more incidents took place—virtually one every school day.

Crane’s Principal Richard Smith did not return phone calls. David Penn, the dean of students, declined to address the issue of what is reported to the central administration. However, Penn maintains the school has been calm for a while, though the surrounding neighborhood can be treacherous.

Penn notes that the school serves young people who may be members of four different gangs. At the end of the school day, the school’s entire security force empties out of the building and surrounds it.

“I would say that 85 percent of the problems outside the school are not caused by Crane students,” he says.

Penn says school administrators have worked hard in recent years to get students involved in after-school programs, and to send a message that bad behavior won’t be tolerated.

Across town at Corliss High School in Pullman, the situation is similar to that at Crane. Corliss administrators reported only 41 incidents to CPS, but police reports show officers responded to 115 calls about violence inside or on the school’s grounds.

Corliss Principal Anthony Spivey says he has no idea what the police write reports about, but that he follows CPS policy to “the greatest extent.”

Spivey says he does not know how students and teachers feel about the safety environment at his far South Side school. “We hope to provide a safe environment…” he says. “I will tell you this—we don’t have children shot or stabbed. The question is, is the city a safe place?”

Schools work with police

Andres Durbak, director of the Office of Safety and Security, says that since there is a broader range of incidents that should be reported to CPS than to police, school reports should outnumber those reported to police.

However, presented with Catalyst’s data to the contrary, Durbak says he could see some situations in which a police officer would make a report and the school would not feel compelled to call it in.

Principals are required to report to Safety and Security every time a student violates the Student Code of Conduct. Durbak focuses on the violations in categories 4, 5 and 6, which are the more serious offenses, such as gang activity and fights in which someone is injured.

Theophilus Tines, the dean of boys at Harlan High School, notes that he works in concert with police. At Harlan, school incident reports surpassed police reports.

“I call the police in if I think they should be involved,” he says. “They don’t do much in the building without me knowing.”

Durbak says he monitors the school reports to see which schools are having significant problems in order to provide help if needed. So if schools aren’t reporting incidents accurately, they risk not getting extra support.

“We try not to make it punitive,” Durbak says.

Surprise visits

Still, Chicago Teachers Union officials, as well as a group of student leaders, say they believe that principals in many schools under-report.

Assaults and batteries in schools happen more frequently than reported, according to CTU officials. What gets reported depends on the principal’s philosophy, they say.

“Some principals are aggressive,” says Rick Perrotte, who works on safety issues for the CTU. “Others don’t follow through.”

Prosser High senior De’Rell Bonner, who served as the student representative on the School Board last year, recalls that he saw the reports of violent incidents in schools. Often, the summaries didn’t jibe with what he heard from students, especially students at Crane, which his cousin attended.

Bonner worked this past summer with a group of students at the Mikva Challenge, a non-profit organization that promotes civic engagement among young people, to come up with recommendations for how to make schools healthier and safer.

Spurred by what they see as a disconnect between what principals report to administrators and the truth of what’s going on, the students suggested that district leaders make surprise visits to schools.

When visits are planned, suddenly there’s toilet paper in the bathrooms and the halls are swept of students during class time—two things that don’t happen when a visit isn’t in the works, Bonner says. “We think people like Arne Duncan would benefit from seeing the schools on regular days.”

CPS has invited the students to make presentations to principals and security guards and have expressed interest in some of the students’ ideas. But administrators have not committed to unannounced visits at schools, says Hillary Reser of the Mikva Challenge.

Meanwhile, Jacobs is still not convinced that Crane is a secure place for her daughter. During the first week of school, she tried unsuccessfully to register her in a different school. But when nothing came through, she wound up back at Crane.

On Monday, Sept. 10, she walked her daughter to Crane. Once again, she saw the police cars, which she says sit at all four corners of the block, all the time. Rather than ease her concerns, she says the squad cars add to her sense that Crane is dangerous.

“I have to make do with what I have,” she says.