On April 9, the District 65 School Board devoted its entire meeting to considering when it is appropriate to call police officers to intervene at a school. The impetus for the two-and-a-half hour discussion was an incident in which police officers were called to a school for a 6-year old Black boy.

The circumstances surrounding the call to police were not disclosed.

A parent of another 6-year-old in the school where the incident occurred, however, said, “If the school had any sense of Black trauma, that cop would never have been let anywhere near that child, especially since that child was calm by the time the cop arrived. The purported need was long over, and yet they allowed the struggling child to be further traumatized. This is not acceptable.

Superintendent Paul Goren opened the discussion, saying concerns had been raised about the use of police in the schools and said the question that has been raised by many community members, School Board members and administrators is: “When should we as educators and administrators call the police, and when should we not?”

He said the discussion that night should be conducted with an equity lens, with an understanding of institutional racism and with a view to “put our equity learnings into practice.”

While no vote was taken, it appeared that many Board members favored eliminating the practice of using Police Department School Resource Officers (SROs) in the schools and significantly limiting the occasions on which police officers would be called into the schools.

Some Background

District administrators provided some background on the use of SROs in the schools, relationships with police, and de-escalation techniques used by school staff.

Dr. Goren said in his capacity as Superintendent he has to ensure that the schools are safe and secure. As part of that role, he said, “I need to maintain partnerships with the Evanston Police Department and Skokie Police Department in case there’s an incident that is threatening to lives in our schools.”

There are currently two Evanston police officers assigned to District 65 schools as SROs. They visit the schools during the day on a regular basis and provide support to teachers and administrators. 

Dr. Goren said he sees them “in some ways as the first responders of the first responders. In critical instances when we need police to respond to something that is threatening the lives of our children, our students, … I want to make sure we have the types of relationships so that we can solve problems as fast as  we can. The SROs have proven to be folks who understand our schools, know our administrative team, know some teachers and some students.”

He added that the Police Department has agreed that the SROs do not have to wear the standard police uniforms in the schools, and some of the SROs are participating in the District’s equity training.

“And yet,” Dr. Goren continued, “we have the question should we engage SROs, and if so what are our collective expectations.”

Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said SROs have been assigned to the District’s schools starting in the 1990s, and one of their roles is to provide support to staff when there is a significant crisis. In addition, the SROs serve as guest lecturers, participate in community events, develope relationships in the school community, and attempt to expand the way that law enforcement is seen, said Dr. Khelghati.

Dr. Khelghatti said, though, “Schools have an affirmative responsibility to do as much as possible to work with students, parents, and teachers to prevent students from being automatically referred to police and to try to deal with as many issues as possible in the school without contacting police.”

Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent for Special Services, summarized some of the de-escalation techniques used by school staff. She said when a child feels upset, vulnerable or aggressive, “We work with the child in a non-judgmental way to understand the child and give the child personal space to think and calm down.” She said they do not want to overreact when a child is upset and do not want to be threatening or confrontational. She added that they want to set limits for a child, but “we have to honor each child where they are.”

The Panel

The District asked representatives of four organizations to participate on a panel and provide input on when the District should call police to intervene at the schools.

Patrick Keenan-Devlin, Executive Director of the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, said, “No child’s emotional distress should be met with a police response.” He said no one should minimize the trauma that is caused when a child has an adverse contact with a police officer. 

Mr. Keenan-Devlin added, “We must recognize and address the express and implicit biases of White supremacy that cause daily trauma and violence to our children and families of color.”

Mr. Keenan-Devlin said, “We [the Moran Center] believe in the restorative principle that when children cause harm or act out even in the most aggressive ways that the harm both reveals their needs and makes visible the ways we are failing as a community. It then becomes our obligation to ask, ‘What does this child need? Who within our community can meet those needs and how can we work together to meet the needs of that child and their family?’”

While saying he has tremendous respect for many police officers, he said, “I am convinced that law enforcement officers should not be permanently assigned to schools and should only be contacted if there is a real and immediate threat to a child, teacher or public safety.”

Fuschia Winston-Rodriguez, a parent of District 65 children and a representative of the District 65 African American, Black & Caribbean Group, noted that the District’s policy allows staff to call police if there is a weapon, or drugs or a battery.

She said, “Yes, we should call police if there’s weapons in the school. Yes, we should call police if there’s drugs in the schools.” 

But she said the term “battery” is “open to interpretation” and should not be in the policy. If weapons or drugs are not involved, she said police should be called only if a student was showing uncontrollable behavior that was ongoing and prolonged and beyond the physical capabilities of staff to handle. 

Before calling police, Ms. Winston-Rodriguez said school staff should consider how long it will take for police to arrive at the school and whether a child will have calmed down by the time police arrive, making the call unnecessary. She said if police are called and arrive after a child has calmed down, they should not be allowed to interact with the child; and if they do see a child, a social worker should lead the conversation.

Ms. Winston-Rodriguez said calling the police when a student of color is involved has another impact if the incident is witnessed by other students. It results in “further perpetuating systemic racism and solidifying stereotypes for all who are being witness to these interventions.”

Rev. Michael Nabors, president of the Evanston/Northshore NAACP and pastor at Second Baptist Church, said, “I am profoundly shook that what brought us to the table here is a 6-year-old child. … When is it ever okay for anybody in a school district to call the police on a 6-year old? … a six-year-old Black male?

“We are continuing a cycle of injustice that exists, called racism in this country, and it’s particularly related to being African American and in this case being an African American child,” said Rev. Nabors.

 “We have to develop a rigorous policy of when a school calls police for non-life threatening situations. I think it would never exist except for drugs.” He added that in developing the policy the District needed to involve the community, and should draw on experts in the community.

Meg Krule, President of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union), accompanied by Lisa Harris, said DEC had polled teachers and received many responses. “The many we heard from really felt the SROs had been really positive,” she said.  She said teachers view SROs as playing a supportive role, and they would like SROs to be used in a more informal role. Ms. Krulle acknowledged that many children and families had negative experiences with police and said that the SROs may be a way to change the narrative.

She also said educators thought all school staff should be trained in de-escalation techniques, restorative practices, and trauma-informed practices.

Board members did not hear from the SROs assigned to the District’s schools.

Board Comments

 “I would argue we need trauma-informed schools to respond appropriately, professionally and in a restorative manner to children’s and families’ demonstrated need,” said Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti. “I see no evidence of police being the appropriate entity to fill that role. I’m concerned at the use of SROs and any attempt to reframe that from what it is, which is police involvement with children.

“I’m concerned … that we’re framing any discussion with the idea that police officers are a benign presence. My response is ‘to whom.’”

Board member Joey Hailpern said, “I cannot think of any scenario where I would call the police to help an escalated child. …When a child has escalated at school … they need someone who they know and someone who cares for them, and we should not outsource that to someone we call.”

“I don’t have anything against law enforcement, but I’m a White man.”

He said if a child in elementary school has a weapon, well-trained teams in the schools can in most cases intervene and restrain the child, and if necessary call an ambulance. “In no scenario do I think a child in crisis needs a police response.”

Mr. Hailpern said he would carve out one exception, when a child has fled the school grounds and police may be needed to help locate the child for the child’s safety.

Board member Lindsay Cohen said, she was frustrated by the incident saying, “I think it’s a massive failure.

“I think that the notion of forming a better relationship with the cops is a very White-centric thought process. I don’t believe the police need to be the school resource personnel. If the City is willing to contribute resources to the schools, we should look at professionals,  psychologists and social workers.”

Board member Rebecca Mendoza said, “I want to express my sadness with the image of a 6-year-old having the police called on them.”

She said as a member of the Policy Committee, she was committing to adopt a policy to prevent this from ever happening again.

Board member Candance Chow said she echoed what everyone had said. “We need to look at and evaluate internally what’s the right structure to ensure that potentially all of our staff have some level of de-escalation training, of trauma-informed care, and evaluate what will it take for us to implement that.”

She suggested that in the budget process the District may need to make some trade-offs.

Board member Sergio Hernandez said that at a certain age students of color are seen as a “menace,” and that is a bias. “We really need to continue moving forward to continue this [equity] work and see it through and do our best to make sure that justice actually occurs in our lifetimes in our community.”

Board President Suni Kartha said, “I think that the relationship the District has had with SROs or the Police Department is so longstanding that it’s hard to think about moving away from it, but I do think that’s where we need to be.

“What I’m overwhelmingly hearing is that we need additional support. We need to assure that all of our staff receive training in trauma-informed practices. What we have is not enough.”

In terms of calling police to intervene, Ms. Kartha said she would approve calling police if a student had a weapon, and if a student has run off the premises.

 “But except in those extreme circumstances, if we say we’re not going to call police, what can we reasonably put in place through the end of the year to ensure our educators have resources? … If we don’t use SROs what can we put in place as an alternative from here to the end of the year?”

She asked Dr. Goren to come back to the Board with a plan for the rest of this year and next year. 

Dr. Goren said, “I apologize. I’m sorry. We shouldn’t be calling police on 6-year olds. We should be supporting our 6- through 12-year olds across the board.”

He said administrators would take into account the comments made at the meeting and think about the supports children need in the schools and who are the appropriate people to provide the supports and that he will come back with a plan. He added that he will deeply involve the community in the process.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...