Citing safety, most high schools keeping police

October 28, 2011

This summer, CPS officials announced a cost-cutting move that they hoped would save $13 million: Offer high schools $25,000 in exchange for each police officer they agreed to give up. Having officers assigned to schools for 8-hour shifts cost about $75,000 a year per officer, according to CPS. But while CPS eventually upped its offer, most high school principals’ concerns over safety have led them to hold on to the two uniformed police officers that have traditionally been assigned to their schools.

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley says that only four high school principals let go of both their officers and 12 gave up one. CPS officials declined to identify those principals that took CPS up on the cash offer, but emphasized the schools have safety plans in place to avoid any problems the loss of the police might bring.

Cawley says CPS was able to bring down the costs of having the police officers in schools by telling CPD that the district won’t pay to have them on hand over breaks or the summer. Altogether he says CPS will save about $11 million by being diligent about the way they manage the police officers.

Cawley acknowledged that he was surprised that, even principals in schools in good neighborhoods, were reluctant to give up their officers.  When Cawley announced the offer CPS was making to principals, he said he saw it as a “win, win, win.” Principals get some extra cash to spend in perhaps a more productive way, while the district saves some money.

“[Police Supt. Garry] McCarthy gets some big numbers of police officers that he can send to the street,” Cawley said.

Back in August, he said he thought 70 percent of principals would take CPS up on the offer and he would have no problem with picking up the tab for police officers at schools where principals think they need them. “As you can imagine, in a school where the  officers are very visible and have relationships with students and staff and are clearly helping to keep the peace, those principals will say, ‘I am keeping my cops,’ ” he said at an August budget briefing. “And we say, ‘God bless you, we are fine with that.’  And we are paying for it.”

Yet after the experience of having so many principals turn down the offer, Cawley says in the future things might change. Principals might have to reach into their individual school budgets to pay, at least partly, for the police officers, Cawley says. “Then we will see how much they value them,” he says.

It’s not just police officers. Cawley says that he questions the need for the 750 security officers in the schools, calling them “an army.”

“In good times, it might have been something we could do, but in these times we have to question every expense,” says Cawley, who noted that in some schools security guards do provide needed monitoring of students as they move from place to place. 

The costs of police officers became a hot one this summer when suddenly the cash-strapped school district was asked to fork over $46 million in backpay to the Chicago Police Department. According to officials, the Chicago Police Department had provided the officers at a discounted rate for more than two decades. Then suddenly demanded that CPS not only pay the full price of $25 million in 2012, but also pay back expenses incurred for the past three years.

Though he wasn’t in CPS when these previous deals were made, and admitted he didn’t know the rationale for it, Cawley said the district had no choice but to make the back payment of $46 million to the police department because “it is the right thing to do.”

Safety first

Many of the high school administrators Catalyst spoke with, including those from selective enrollment schools such as Whitney Young and Northside College Prep, said the decision to keep a police presence in and around their schools wasn’t a difficult one.

“We have 2,300 students here and what they were offering was chump change,” said one principal, noting that the district offered no guarantee that the money would be around next year.

The administrators also noted that CPS officials had offered them more money after they turned down the original offer. “It seems like they are trying to find the right price,” said one principal.

But school administrators said Emanuel and CPS leaders don’t understand the key role police officers play in the schools. An assistant principal at Gage Park High School said simply that the school is in a “high-risk, high gang area and we need the authority that police officers bring.”

“Sometimes we need police officers to do things that extend beyond what security guards can do,” he said.

Because they report to police sergeants, police officers often know when tension is brewing in the neighborhood or when fights take place off-campus and during non-school hours. They can bring that knowledge into the school and try to mitigate additional violence from happening on campus.

Brian Richter, an assistant principal at Kelly High School, said keeping the police officers was less about problems inside the school and more about them outside the school.

“There was not much discussion on this issue,” he said. “We feel like we are maintaining safety pretty good and we didn’t want to rock the boat.”

Many of the administrators also added that the police officers were part of the schools, mentoring students and giving them a positive view of police officers. 

Amundsen Dean Leonard Evans says police officers do prevention work and counsel students in tough situations. “We have two excellent officers. They do social work for our students and our teachers. We love them.”

King College Prep Principal Jeff Wright agreed, and added that he didn’t quite understand why CPS or the schools had to pay for the police presence. “Where else do you find 1,000 people concentrated in one place on a weekday?” he said. “The job of the police is to keep the community safe, and we are part of the community.”