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For several weeks, representatives of the City and School District 202 ( Evanston Township High School) have been trying to forge an intergovernmental agreement that would essentially extend ETHS’s safes school zone across each of its bordering streets to the far side of the sidewalks across those streets.
They tried again at the Sept. 10 meeting of the City-School Liaison Committee, this time moving forward with a proposal to collect data, form a small group to refine the proposal and then share both sets of information with the neighbors.
While District 202’s discussions about expanding a safe school zone were widely reported, when the proposed agreement came before the City’s Human Services Committee in August, some residents and the aldermen of the two wards most affected, the Second and the Fifth, were angry about the proposal and about the lack of notice.
Hoping to ameliorate some of the anger and perhaps misunderstandings that have dogged the proposed intergovernmental agreement, Seventh Ward alderman Jane Grover, who chairs the City-School Liaison Committee, asked members and residents to put aside the mechanics of the state statute dealing with safe school zones and concentrate on the safety of children.
“What we’re all looking to do is put aside the state statute and … look at what we can accomplish in the way of a safe school zone for Evanston,” she said. The premise appears to be that the City and ETHS can craft their own intergovernmental agreement that would be legal but not necessarily use the same language as the state statute.
This safe zone – different from the school safe zones where penalties for drug and weapons violations are increased – would offer additional protection to ETHS students, said Dr. Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of District 202.
School Policies and Problems
At present, ETHS safety personnel can ask anyone on school property – within the block bordered by Church and Lake streets and Dodge and Pitner avenues – who reasonably appears threatening to leave the property. If that is not done, school officials may resort to calling police. Expanding the school safety zone to the far edge of the sidewalks across each of those streets would allow District personnel to treat that additional space as though it were school property.
“So what we’re asking is to do what we already do,” said Dr. Witherspoon. “We want to extend that same preventive measure to the other side of the street.”
Dr. Witherspoon said dismissal is a critical time for ETHS students, because nearly all 3,000 students leave the building at the same time. In most cases, students disperse within 20 to 30 minutes without incident, he said. “It’s that 2 percent of the time, where there’s something brewing [that we might need help].” He said in some cases there have been people apparently waiting for certain students, wearing gang colors and throwing gang signs.
“When it starts, it can get very tense,” Dr. Witherspoon said. “How often do you know in advance?” asked Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward.
“We know there are gangs. We have known gang members in the school. They have reinforcements we don’t know about. It depends on whether the kids are seeking our help,” Dr. Witherspoon said. He added that the school tries to protect students, and officials take additional steps if they learn that a student is afraid. If a student notifies a school official that he or she is afraid to leave the school, “we’ll keep them in the building and get them home safely,” he said. He also said in some cases school officials will get the student home before school is out.
Policing the Area
While representatives of the high school pushed the necessity of preventive measures to keep the students safe, the three residents who spoke at the meeting appeared instead to endorse calling the police either on the brink of a crime’s being committed or after the fact rather than having the school address potential troubles.
Albert Gibbs said, “If we expand the school safety zone, what actually are you going to accomplish? Don’t start [pushing] yourself farther into my area.”
“No one knows the students better than our own staff,” said District 202 Board member Scott Rochelle. “As a school, we cannot rely on you [neighbors] to protect our students. From 7:30 a.m. till 4 o’clock they are ours. If we could, we would walk students home, get them a snack and see their homework is done. We would do that. … We want to do what’s best for our own kids.”
Betty Ester said, “The community would like to keep the sidewalks public, so we can call the police.”
Madelyn Ducre said, “Superintendent, why don’t [you] call the police when you see something going on over there? Why don’t we call the police? I don’t have a problem with calling the police but I try to solve the problem first.” Addressing the District 202 representatives, she said, “You did the wrong thing when you did not let the community know what was going on.”
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who attended the meeting, said she was concerned that such an agreement would increase the arrests of young people, who would then have a criminal record trailing them.
“You’re not only asking us to ask kids to move away,” the Mayor said. “Once you ask kids to move along … who’s going to arrest those kids for standing on the sidewalk? We don’t want to arrest kids for standing on the street.”
Mr. Rochelle said, “I don’t think the school is saying they’re going to arrest anyone for standing on the street corner. The assumption is the school is going to say, ‘We don’t like you [here], move along or we’re going to have the police arrest you.’”
Alderman Grover said she thought arrests and citations would be for misdemeanors.
Dr. Witherspoon added that when the police, particularly the school resource officers become involved, it is typically to defuse a situation rather than to make an arrest.
Sixth Ward Alderman Mark Tendam, a member of the committee said, “I think students need to feel safe; faculty and teachers and administrators need to feel safe in patrolling the schools; parents need to feel their children are safe; and the neighbors need to feel safe.”
The City-School Liaison Committee will meet again in October, but the proposed agreement will not likely be on the agenda. For the next few weeks, at Ald. Grover’s suggestion – which appeared to be agreed to but not voted on – the issue will be addressed in three ways: First, the police and the School District will compile data about when the police were called to the high school during the next month and when, according to School District data, they have been or could possibly have been called in the past. Second, a small group of committee members will work toward drafting a document that would reflect what the school wishes to accomplish and how it might be enforced. Third, the committee will share this information with the community.
By thinking outside the statute, the committee may be able to come up with a resolution.