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For the last five months, the District 202 School Board has been urging the City to adopt an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) to create and enforce a safe school zone around Evanston Township High School. The IGA was drafted by the City’s legal department and approved by the School Board last summer. City Council, however, balked at implementing the IGA after neighbors objected and two alderman raised concerns.

Now, after separate meetings by the City’s Human Services Committee and the District 202 School Board on Nov. 4, it appears that both bodies agree that an IGA is not necessary to create and enforce a safe school zone around ETHS.

Both the Human Service Committee  and the School Board referred to a State  statute, 720 ILCS 5/21-5.5, that defines “safe school zones” and makes it a criminal trespass if a person enters or remains in the safe school zone in certain situations, which are rather confusingly defined. See, e.g., 5/21-5.5(b). That statute, said Board President Gretchen Livingston, is a “criminal trespass” statute and is one of many tools the state has at hand to make schools and school areas safer. The law became effective on Jan. 1, 2012, and it applies to every school in the state. 

History of the IGA

Ms. Livingston reiterated the history of the IGA, which the District 202 Board approved unanimously in June. Under that IGA, ETHS officials would have extended the ETHS safe school zone to the far edge of the sidewalks across all of the streets surrounding ETHS. Thus sidewalks on the north side of Church Street, the east side of Dodge Avenue, the south side of Lake Street and the west side of Pitner Avenue would all be included in ETHS’s safe school zone.

After the School Board approved the IGA, the matter was put on the agenda for the Aug. 5 meeting of the City’s Human Services Committee.

Supporters and critics of the IGA spoke passionately at the Aug. 5 meeting. Residents living near the high school and the aldermen of the two wards immediately around the high school – Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, and Delores Holmes, 5th Ward – opposed the measure. Some said the safe school zone would encourage racial profiling. Others suggested that the high school should take care of its own problems on its own property. Still others said they felt there would be too many arrests, unnecessarily sending young persons into the criminal justice system.

At subsequent meetings, including a City Council meeting on Aug. 12 and a City-School Liaison Committee on Sept. 10, the matter was discussed but with no resolution.

The Nov. 4 Meetings

The discussion at the Nov. 4 meetings of the School Board and the Human Services Committee reflected almost parallel thinking. Each body appeared to agree that an IGA is not necessary to create a safe school zone and expect that the Evanston Police Department will enforce it.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward said at the Human Services Committee that she had drafted a proposed resolution enumerating several projects and initiatives by the City to bolster school safety but said the draft had been put into the committee packet by mistake and she preferred it not be discussed. “What I’m proposing is that we continue to work on these issues and hold in committee any kind of formal implementation from the City … that we let our police and our schools do what they do best, which is to work hand-in-glove outside or and on the ETHS campus.”

If the safe school zone “isn’t working for us, then we explore either an amendment for school safety zones so that it works for Evanston … or  we find a different way of implementing it for Evanston and for our schools,” Ald. Grover said.

At the School Board meeting, Ms. Livingston said ETHS would rely on an opinion by the District’s legal counsel, Franczek Radelet. That opinion states that the State statute creates a safe school zone around ETHS that includes the sidewalks across all of  the streets surrounding ETHS. The letter also says that Evanston police may enforce the safe school zone. The opinion letter also says there is no need for an IGA.

Ms. Livingston said, “We are interested in keeping our students safe. We’re not interested in arresting people. Safe school zones give police officers the ability to clear sidewalks of anyone posing a threat to ETHS.” She added, “We don’t want those arrests to be happening here. Under the statute, the police are allowed to clear people away before an arrest.” She said the statute is “narrowly crafted,” targeting specific people in specific areas to be cleared, if notice is given.

“It is an important tool to combat violence in the community. The work we do, and our dedicated staff, City Council members, public safety officials send the same message – that we do not tolerate violence in our community, and especially not in our high school. Sometimes it’s hard to lift these facts above the din of the opposition,” Ms. Livingston added.

Safety Department head Sam Pettineo said he had spoken with the Chief of Police in Champaign, where the high school and the police department have enforced a school safety zone for more than two years but without an IGA and with “no difficulty.” Mr. Pettineo  and Police Chief Richard Eddington will “work out ways to implement the state statute,” said Ms. Livingston.

While Ms. Livingston said she felt ETHS  should forge ahead  with  the safe school  zone without an IGA, some Board members said they thought it was important to obtain some sort of City agreement or acknowledgement.

“We have to get serious about being in a partnership with the City,” said Bill Geiger.

Mark Metz said the City originally proposed the IGA but now has “taken a step back from it … for reasons that frankly remain a mystery. … I am thoroughly convinced that we all want the same things – no violence for our kids … It’s not a neighborhood problem; it’s a communitywide problem.”

“I think we need to proceed with an IGA to show that we are in agreement,” said Jonathan Baum. “Let’s go back and talk. … This back-and-forth sends a terrible message to a community that the City and ETHS are not in agreement about the safety of our kids.”

Scott Rochelle said he felt the school should proceed with the safe school zone but “we need to change the approach if we do something similar in the future. We have to go to the community.”

Criminal Code’s Definition of Safe School Zone

The Illinois Criminal Code, 720 ILCS 5/21-5.5(a), defines a “”safe school zone”” to include “”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. The safe school zone shall not include any portion of the highway not actually on school property.””

Franczek Radelet’s legal opinion says “”the safe school zone includes all of ETHS’s grounds and the pedestrian sidewalks directly across the street from ETHS that are part of the public right of way.””

The provisions of the statute are only applicable during school hours or within 60 minutes before or after the school day or a school-sponsored activity.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...