For the Record: High school cops

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Once routine, the long-standing practice of stationing two police officers at high schools has become controversial in recent years. Activists for students worry about a rush to arrest teens, and district officials have made murky claims about the cost.

This year’s proposed budget includes just $13 million to pay for these officers, far less than officials have previously estimated as the cost for current staffing levels. But CPS officials declined to say which schools would lose their police officers and how many would be cut.

Spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler responded to a request for details with the statement: “Police officers will continue to play a very important role in providing for the safety of our students in our schools.” Ziegler added that the district is moving toward a more holistic approach to safety that focuses on classroom management and positive behavior supports.

Principals, however, say they would like concrete answers about what to expect next year. Wells Principal Ernesto Mathias says he has heard nothing about a reduction in police officers.

“I filled out a basic form for security needs but nothing else,” Matias wrote via e-mail.

New Corliss Principal Leonard Harris says he definitely sees a role for police officers in the schools: Their presence makes people feel safe.

“They are able to address some of the immediate issues that might come up,” he says.

Last year, CPS leaders, then new to the job, tried to entice principals to get rid of their school’s police officers, offering them $25,000 in exchange for letting the officers go. But few principals took the cash.

Even principals in schools with high-performing students in better neighborhoods, such as Whitney Young, held onto their police officers. As a result, the district didn’t realize the savings officials predicted and the district paid nearly $20 million to keep the police in place.

Reducing the police presence in schools is a goal of VOYCE–Voices of Youth in Chicago Education–a coalition of student activists who say the regular presence of police in schools leads to arrests for minor offenses.

VOYCE wanted CPS to impose more stringent guidelines for police calls in the revamped Student Code of Conduct approved in June. Yet CPS refused, leaving the code as is as it pertains to police involvement in schools.

Paying cops vs. teachers?

Last year, VOYCE leaders said the cost of the police in schools is another reason to limit their presence. This year, the issue of cost recently became an issue in teacher contract negotiations.

According to a February 2010 intergovernmental agreement obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Chicago Teachers Union, the district agreed to pay the police department $32.8 million or $8 million a year for these officers from 2009 thru the end of 2012. 

Then, last year, the new CPS leadership announced that CPS had been under-cutting the police department and owed it an additional $70 million. A CPS spokeswoman said the police officers actually cost about $25 million a year and Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley said the district had “no choice” but to pay.

But CTU leaders were suspicious. About the same time as CPS leaders announced they would pay the extra money to police, the Board of Education rescinded a promised 4 percent raise for teachers and other staff. The raises would cost the district $80 million, about the same amount as CPS was suddenly giving to the police department.

The union obtained a subsequent intergovernmental agreement—not signed until December of 2011—in which district officials agree to pay the police department $70.8 million more than called for in the original contract.

Recently, in the midst of teacher contract negotiations, CTU leadership accused the district of diverting money to the police department to get out of paying the raises. And an independent fact-finder noted that the union is still bitter about the rescinding of the raises and it weighs heavy into the contract negotiations.