City Council’s Human Services Committee voted 3-2, along geographic and racial lines, to forward a “safe schools” agreement on to City Council for full consideration next Monday, Aug. 12. Aldermen from the two wards that would be most directly affected, and Council’s only two African American aldermen, voted against the agreement.
Under the agreement, the City would provide additional police presence around Evanston Township High School and support the school’s enforcement of an expanded “safe school zone.”
The “safe school zone” is a product of a relatively new state law that went into effect in January 2012. The law defines a “safe school zone” as “any school property, ground, or street, sidewalk, or public way immediately adjacent thereto and any public right-of-way situated immediately adjacent to school property.” (720 ILCS 5/21-5.5)
Using this law, the District 202 school board and Superintendent Eric Witherspoon “designated” a safe school zone that includes the sidewalks across the street from ETHS on Lake, Dodge, Church and Pitner. The Illinois law does not provide for the “designation” of a safe school zone but instead defines the zone.
ETHS officials propose expanding the school zone across the four streets that border ETHS property – Church and Lake streets and Dodge and Pitner avenues – to the far edge of the sidewalks there. If requested by school officials, police would be able to enforce criminal trespass laws against unwanted persons on those sidewalks during and shortly after school hours or events.
Anyone asked school officials to “move on,” or leave these spaces would be subject to arrest by police for criminal trespass if they did not do so.
Although the proposed agreement with School District 202, the high school, was the only one discussed, a second, similar proposal for School District 65, which has 15 buildings in Evanston, was also on the agenda.
At the Aug. 12 meeting, ETHS officials lined up to speak in favor of the proposed intergovernmental agreement. Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said, “We ask for your help. We really need your help. Safety is becoming a bigger issue every day.” The agreement, he said, “expands what we already do a little wider. Just across the street.”
Assistant Principal Vernon Clark spoke passionately in favor of the agreement. “We are dealing with all of these things every day,” he said. We’re not able to move people along. It’s about safeguarding the 3,000 plus kids who come to ETHS. I am going on the record. I am for the [agreement].
“We’ve been doing this so long we can almost feel the tension,” said Mr. Clark. “Trust us. Trust us. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t need it. I’m here to tell you, we need it… I implore you, I beg you, to support this.”
District 202 School Board President Gretchen Livingston called the measure a “really important issue” and urged the Committee to “come together and collaborate, extend our reach.” She noted the “pressing issue of violence in our community” and said the measure passed at the School Board level unanimously and without controversy.
Sam Pettineo, a retired Evanston police officer and current safety director at ETHS said, “We’ve had numerous incidents. Gang member from Chicago standing across the street ready to do battle with Evanston kids.”
Many were angry at the proposal. Saying he represented the local chapter of the NAACP, George Mitchell said, “I have some concerns that we don’t need this ordinance. Why do we need it?” He questioned language in the state law which exempted those standing in a safe zone for a “lawful purpose” and allowed an arrest for “reasonable suspicion” that someone will disrupt the “orderly operation” of the school.
Residents and the aldermen of the Second and Fifth wards were not swayed by the school officials. Betty Ester, who said she lives across the street from ETHS on Church Street, said she would be in a “safe school zone” as soon as she set foot outside her front door.
She said she believed that under ETHS’s interpretation of the Illinois law, she would be subject to arrest if she did not move along her sidewalk quickly enough. Ms. Ester said that the matter needed to be brought before the community and discussed openly before a risk of arrest for trespass extended into private property. “These are things that need to be debated in the wider community,” she said, not just at the School Board and Human Services Committee.
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward includes the high school, said he thought there should be more public input. “You’ve looking to enact a policy and you didn’t do any outreach,” he said, addressing school officials. Instead, the school and City were attempting to “shove” it down residents’ throats “without even a conversation with them,” he said.
Referring to a recent change in police policy, Ald. Braithwaite continued: “We had conversations with our residents [about stop-and-frisk] and they ultimately supported it. Until those conversations take place [on this policy], I cannot support [the proposed agreement].”
Alderman Delores Holmes, whose Fifth Ward includes the Church Street corridor across from ETHS that would be, arguably, the region most impacted by the change, also spoke against it. “I support the schools [but] I cannot support this ordinance [agreement]. I really feel strongly about it…. I did a lot of work in my community before I could support stop-and-frisk.” If the school wants the community, and the aldermen representing the community, to support the policy change, then they need to reach out and do the work necessary to build support, she said.
Ald. Braithwaite echoed Ald. Holmes, adding, “District 202 and District 65 need to host the community meeting. Have the conversation on your ground.”
Underlying the discussion was the issue of race. “Mainly [ETHS] borders people who look like me,” said Ald. Holmes. She added later that though she did not know who would be most impacted by the change, “I know they’ll be people who look like me. I may be standing here alone…” voting against the measure.
The remaining aldermen on the committee, all white and all representing wards far from ETHS but whose wards have District 65 schools, supported the proposed agreement. Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said, “I do support this. But I disagree that it’s the school’s complete responsibility or the police to keep us safe. I don’t know that we’re heard the word parent or guardian tonight.” The community needs to hold parents responsible, she said.
Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, who sits on the City-School Liaison Committee, said he supported the measure. “I sort of get the whole clear vision, the clear broader vision,” he said.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “I trust the officials at ETHS to keep our kids safe.” She urged passage before the start of the school year, and said she thought there was time for community meetings before that time. She said she felt it was the responsibility of Alds. Braithwaite and Holmes to conduct such meetings, even though the schools were seeking support from the City.
The proposed agreement moves on to Council by a 3-2 vote.