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With the safety – and the feeling of being safe – of Evanston Township High School students a matter of concern, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl asked residents at the Nov. 14 Second Ward meeting for their help and ideas. Her proposal of a string of cameras along Church Street and Dodge Avenue almost the length and breadth of the City met a tepid but not wholly hostile reception.

“The real problem is that kids feel perfectly safe in the high school. When kids feel afraid sometimes is going to school and coming home from school. … I need your help. I need your ideas,” said Mayor Tisdahl.

The topic of safety around the high school has been discussed, at times with a passion and animus, over the past few months. In June of this year, the District 202 School Board approved an intergovernmental agreement with the City of Evanston to create a “safe school zone.” Although City Council did not sign the proposed agreement, earlier this month the School Board announced that a State statute has created safety zones around public schools. An intergovernmental agreement is not necessary either to create or to enforce a safe school zone. School officials say they can ask Evanston Police officers to clear the sidewalks across from the high school of anyone who reasonably appears to pose a threat to ETHS students or personnel.

ETHS personnel, including Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, Chief of Safety Sam Pettineo and Board President Gretchen Livingston, have said on several occasions that ETHS students have been threatened by people waiting for them on the sidewalks across the street from the high school and that ETHS personnel have no jurisdiction there.

Police Chief Richard Eddington said that most of the trouble at the high school occurs around dismissal time. Many supervisory adults are on the school grounds at that time, including police officers who get out of their cars and walk the area. Dr. Witherspoon also mingles with the students as they leave for the day. 

The City is in the process of installing about $60,000 of lights and cameras around the perimeter of the high school, said the Mayor. She said she would like to see cameras along nearly the length of both Church Street and Dodge Avenue – on Church Street from McCormick Boulevard to Ridge Avenue or even downtown and on Dodge Avenue from Simpson to Howard streets.

“These cameras are not the intrusive kind. They will show sidewalks and streets [not the insides of people’s homes],” said Mayor Tisdahl.

Chief Eddington said the level of technology in these proposed cameras would not be sophisticated enough to have facial recognition. He also said the Evanston community and the police department are “sensitive to civil liberties.” He invited residents to visit the 911 center in the police/fire headquarters at Lake Street and Elmwood Avenue “to see what we see [on the cameras already installed in the community]. We’re interested in crime and streets – not your house.”

Chief Eddington said the police department has a set of cameras trained on certain spots. If a 911 call comes in from or near one of those spots, “the person monitoring the switchboard will switch to that camera. We don’t have someone watching 24/7.” He added that it is “relatively easy” to store the tapes for future use as evidence.

Both Mayor Tisdahl and Chief Eddington said the cameras are intended to be “preventive.” “Deterrence is a huge factor when cameras are introduced into a public space,” he added.

“We are not doing this in response to any horrible incident that you don’t know about,” said Mayor Tisdahl. “It’s deterrence – to make the kids feel safe.”

Responding to a question of why the students say they do not feel safe, Mayor Tisdahl said, “Over time there have been incidents. … We know there are far too many guns in this community.”

Some of the residents appeared concerned that having cameras on Dodge Avenue would push crime into their neighborhoods. Officer Reggie Napier, whose beat includes the Second Ward, said that ward has comparatively less crime than many other areas.

Chief Eddington said he did not believe that would be the case, because most of the incidents occur within two blocks of the high school.

Dickelle Fonda told the RoundTable she is concerned about the proposed cameras.

“I respect the Mayor’s commitment to finding ways to ensure the safety of all Evanstons children and look forward to a community-wide discussion about the deeper issues behind why they don’t feel safe and what the entire community can do to address that,” said Ms. Fonda.

“The current proposal to create two surveillance corridors through the heart of our City and through many different neighborhoods raises a lot of questions about cost and benefit – questions such as whether the independent research supports that there actually is a deterrent effect from public cameras or whether they create a false sense of security and a perception of safety only; the impact on neighborhoods surrounding the surveillance zones; and  and  what alternative solutions need to be explored as a community to address why our children do not feel safe leaving school. A community-wide discussion will focus on an important issue that all of Evanston needs to address,” Ms. Fonda said.

“You want these cameras and lights to be pretty and you want them to blend in,” one resident said, asking how effective such cameras would be.

Another resident questioned whether there will be public discussion about the proposed cameras and how the proposal would be made public.

“The word will get out,” said Mayor Tisdahl. “By the time we’ve gone through discussing this and securing grants and money, people will know. … This is what the kids say we need. We have to help them.”

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...