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At its Aug. 12 meeting, City Council voted to hold the controversial Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) under which the Evanston Police Department would work with Evanston Township High School to patrol an expanded “safe school” zone that extends beyond the school grounds. The move followed the Human Services Committee’s 3-2 vote, along geographic and racial lines, to forward a “safe schools” agreement on to City Council.
The proposed IGA would provide for additional police presence around ETHS and support the school’s enforcement of a newly designated “safe school zone,” extending the property over which school officials have authority to include all sidewalks across the street from the school: those on Church and Lake streets and Dodge and Pitner avenues. Anyone asked by school officials to “move on,” or leave these currently public spaces might be subject to arrest by the police for criminal trespass if they do not do so.
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 all the sidewalks across the street from ETHS. The state law does not provide for the “designation” of a safe school zone but instead defines the zone.
At the Human Services Committee on Aug. 5, District 202 officials lined up to speak in favor of the proposed IGA. Dr. 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.”
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.
Representing 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 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. Betty Ester, who lives on Church Street across the street from ETHS, said she would be in a “safe school zone” as soon as she set foot outside her front door. Under ETHS’s interpretation of the Illinois law, she would be subject to arrest if she did not move along her sidewalk quickly enough, she said.
Ms. Ester said the matter should be brought before the community and discussed openly. “These are things that need to be debated in the wider community,” she said, not just at the School Board and Human Services Committee,” she said.
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, whose Second Ward includes the high school, agreed. “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 our throats,” 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 it.”
Alderman Delores Holmes, whose Fifth Ward includes the Church Street corridor across from ETHS that would be, arguably, the region most affected 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 added.
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 some distance from ETHS, 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’ve 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, despite the fact it was the School Board, not the City, asking for Council approval.
At the Aug. 12 City Council meeting, Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, pointed out numerous problems with the state statute upon which the safe school zone referenced in the IGA. “This is based on a state statute,” he said. “We did not write this.” The statute allows inclusion of the public way immediately adjacent to the school, but the safe school zone crossed first the street immediately adjacent and then the sidewalk on the other side of the street. “I don’t know that we could even include that sidewalk,” he said.
Further, the individuals subject to the law are poorly defined, he said. The statute defines a person subject to potential arrest as anyone whose “presence has been withdrawn by a school administrator.”
“This is a horrible statute,” said Ald. Wilson. “I have zero inclination to adopt this statue” in an IGA or otherwise, he said.
Also at the Council meeting, several other residents joined the chorus against the measure. Brigette (“Gigi” Giles, who operates Ebony Barber Shop near Church Street and Dodge Avenue, said “it’s going to affect business.” Technically, customers going to her shop could be subject to arrest under the IGA, she said. “I don’t know anything about this safety zone. I would have appreciated knowing about it,” she said.
Ald. Holmes said that she and others canvassed the businesses and residences whose sidewalks might have been included in the zone, and not a single one of them had been approached by the School District or School Board about the safe zone. “We can’t find anybody who had been talked to,” she said. “Courtesy. It’s a respect thing.”
On the motion of Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, the IGA was held at the Council level, for discussion over the coming weeks.
Public schools are scheduled to open on Aug. 26, and it appears ETHS will open without an expanded safe school zone.