An intergovernmental agreement approved last week by Evanston Township High School officials spells out when and under what circumstances Evanston Police Officers on school property are permitted to turn on their body-worn cameras.

The Police Department assigns school resource officers (SROs) to public schools here “to address issues that may arise concerning safety while students are in this learning environment,” according to information on the Evanston Police Department’s web page. The SROs “work very closely with school staff to ensure school campuses are safe for students, staff and authorized visitors,” according to the Police Department. Like all Evanston Police Officers, SROs have body-worn cameras.

The Law Enforcement Officer-Worn Body Camera Act (50 ILCS 706/10-1 et seq.) provides that police officers may wear body-worn cameras and turn them on in certain situations. ETHS and City officials “recognize both the merit and potential problems that may arise from a police officer’s use of a BWC while on ETHS property,” according to the agreement.

The key elements of the agreement center on the circumstances under which a police officer may turn on the body-worn camera and the protection of the student’s privacy.

In accordance with the State’s body-worn camera act, the agreement states that the SRO is performing a “community care-taking function when engaged in his/her role as an SRO.” In that capacity, the SRO will not have the camera turned on during the school day. Should the officer have reason to believe a crime has been committed or is in the process of being committed or “is in a hostile situation or perceives that a complaint will be raised,” she or he has the discretion to turn on the camera. 50 ILCS 706/10-20(a)(4.5).

The SRO must promptly notify the ETHS principal of any recording by the body-worn camera.

When an SRO records a student on high school property, the officer shall be considered a law-enforcement unit of the school and the record will not be considered an educational record. The school does not have to disclose the records voluntarily and may refuse to do so without a warrant or court order or similar legal demand.

The agreement also provides that, except in a case of imminent danger, SROs will first use restorative rather than punitive measures – such as community service rather than arrest – in dealing with a student suspect.

The agreement states, “The Parties seek to implement a partnership that creates effective and positive school student discipline that (a) is part of ETHS’ larger effort to address school safety and climate; (b) includes proactive and restorative methods rather than only punitive; and (c) is clear, consistent, and equitable.”

Only Board member Jonathan Baum voted against the agreement. He said he felt the agreement is unclear as to the circumstances under which the SRO would turn on the body-worn camera. He also said, “It’s a five-year agreement. Wouldn’t we want to see how it works before locking ourselves in for five years?”

Mr. Baum said, “They don’t even need our permission to record.”

“Yes – and no,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. There are some places, such as a social worker’s office or a counselor’s office or in a routine interaction with a student, where the officer cannot record activities.

Dr. Witherspoon said, “We would tweak it and send it back. We have the protections we want. If there are problems, we can take them out.” He added, “District 65’s own lawyer and the City of Evanston worked out the details. The Police Department received training.”

To Mr. Baum’s question about whether the records would be accessible through FOI requests, Dr. Witherspoon said, “We don’t know. That’s a police matter.”

Evanston Police Commander Ryan Glew told the RoundTable under State law “anything involving juveniles is not subject to FOIA.” An arrest of an adult on school property, however, would be subject to an FOIA request, and, in that event, any images of juveniles would be blurred out, he said.

Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup told the RoundTable recordings of juveniles in a school setting “fall within the exception for records covered under the Juvenile Court Act. Generally, only persons that are the subject of the video, the subject’s attorney, or their parent can receive a copy.”  

Board member Gretchen Livingston asked whether the City planned to adopt the agreement. Dr. Witherspoon said it would be on the City and the District 65 agendas. Only the District 202 Board voted on the matter on Feb. 11. City Council approved the agreement at its Feb. 25 meeting.

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...