On Oct. 7, the Policy Committee of the District 65 School Board discussed proposed changes to the role of School Resource Officers (SROs) in the schools as well as efforts to increase each school’s capacity to de-escalate a situation where a student is in some type of a crisis.

Historically, the Evanston Police Department assigned two SROs to School District 65. The SROs visited the schools during the day on a regular basis and provided support to teachers and administrators. The use of SROs came under attack at an April 9 Board meeting, after an SRO was called to assist with a 6-year-old black male.

Last spring, members of the Board asked administrators to phase out the use of SROs in the schools. To follow through on that request, Interim Superintendent Phil Ehrhardt said administrators had met with Police Chief Demitrous Cook and had followed up that meeting with five or six other meetings with the EPD to discuss changing the role of SROs and taking steps to ensure student safety in the schools in emergency situations.  

Dr. Ehrhardt said the new procedures being proposed by administrators should be viewed as interim procedures, and administrators will seek feedback from the community to see how they are working.  Assistant Superintendent of Schools Andalib Khelghati said the plan is to obtain input from all stakeholders, including students, in the spring.

 Board President Suni Kartha made clear that the new procedures represented an important shift in policy. “We are not going to have police officers regularly in our school buildings,” she said.

Increasing Capacity to Respond to Student Crisis

“Our goal is to increase the capacity of our staff to be able to respond to students that are in crisis,” said Romy DeCristofaro, the District’s Executive Director for Special Services. An important part of the goal, she said, is “to increase the number of staff who are able to successfully support the student who is escalating before it becomes a crisis.”

Ms. DeCristofaro said all principals and assistant principals have participated in de-escalation training. In addition, all elementary paraprofessionals have gone through de-escalation training, and middle school paraprofessionals are scheduled to be trained. “Our goal at the end of this year is to have over 200 educators who are certified in de-escalation strategies,” she said.

In addition, the plan calls for increasing the number of staff who are certified as coaches by the Crisis Prevention Institute from three to nine. A CPI-certified coach can train other educators and staff in de-escalation strategies, said Ms. DeCristofaro, and, “They will be point people so that if a school-based team is struggling or if de-escalation strategies are not working … they can call in the CPI coaches.”

Dr. Ehrhardt said there are three levels of incidents, and he summarized how each would be addressed:

Level 1 – School-based staff would work with students and parents to generate meaningful support and solutions utilizing the Behavior Continuum.

Level 2 – A District/School-based Crisis-Interventionist would work with students and parents to generate meaningful support and solutions utilizing the Behavior Continuum.

Level 3 is the last resort, he said, if a student was harming or could be harming himself or herself or other students. At this level, a 911 call would be placed for an ambulance.

Ms. DeCristofaro said each situation differs, and before a 911 operator is called, the schools would use all possible internal supports and staff to try to de-escalate a student.

Dr. Khelghati said, “When a student has a significant challenge, we want to be able to turn around and think about how are we developing an intervention to support this child.” He said this year each school is  developing a student in crisis plan, where they review how to respond to a student in crisis. “It’s meant to be able to develop internal capacity to respond to be able to de-escalate a child. …  We have to think about ways to help a student that are not punitive.”

Transforming the Roles of the SRO

A memo presented to members of the School Board summarized how the District plans to modify the intergovernmental agreement between District 65 and EPD and to transform the role of SROs in the schools. Going forward, Dr. Khelghati said, the SROs’ responsibilities would be as follows:

• The SROs would work in coordination with the EPD Problem Solving Team to provide feedback and coaching to District 65’s school-based crisis teams. The SROs would review each school’s emergency plans, and observe and provide feedback on emergency drills. They would also engage in table-top exercises and simulations with District 65 staff. 

• SROs would conduct daily and weekly patrol of the schools, including their external perimeters, and identify any vulnerabilities or potential threats and provide suggestions to school administrators on how to reduce the risk of threats and improve safety.

• The SROs or an EPD sergeant would refer school-based criminal matters to an EPD detective to investigate. Dr. Khelghati said the legal threshold for calling the police is if a student presents a clear and present danger to themselves or others, a written complaint of a battery against a teacher or staff member has been made, or a student possesses a firearm or drugs on school property.

• An SRO may investigate formal criminal complaints made by families or school staff, and the SRO may use restorative practices to resolve such complaints.

• SROs would serve as an internal communication liaison for issues that impact the EPD and District 65 Incident Commander.

The proposed changes would eliminate the role to “build relationships with children and adults in school,” and to “support school staff when there are significant crises.”

Interim Superintendent Heidi Wennstrom said, “The role previously was much more intertwined with some school supports and investigations, and you can see from what Andalib has outlined that it’s really shifting that role to more safety roles and responsibility.”

Ms. Kartha suggested moving away from using the term “School Resource Officer” because it gives the idea the District is using police officers in the schools. She said the plan proposes shifting away from having police officers regularly in the schools. “It’s a big shift, and it’s in response to what we heard from our community,” she said.

Meg Krulee, President of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) said, “I think one thing that I know we talked a lot about as a District is building relationships and that relationships are important, and so I guess I am  little disappointed to see the shift away from the relationship-building with officers, School Resource Officers …”

Dr. Wennstrom interjected that staff would continue to have relationships with the SROs.

Ms. Krulee said, though, that would be in the context of emergency situations. “I think we are losing the capacity to build relationships at a different level.” She suggested there might be different ways to use School Resource Officers.

Ms. Kartha said a lot of discussion has centered around whether it is an appropriate role of a school district to facilitate a positive relationship with the police. She said that historic and current data show that there is not a positive relationship with the police in the world at large. “And are we actually creating a dangerous situation for a student by saying here is a person you can trust, people who look like this are people that you can trust, and you’re in trouble, when outside of the school wall that might not be true?” She said she did not think a school district should be facilitating a relationship with police officers.

Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said, “If we  hear from a contingent of people that feel unsafe or harmed by a practice and another contingent says, ‘Well, I like that practice,’ it’s our responsibility as an institution to say what our values are here, and how do we stand tall on our values to make sure folks are not harmed. … I think over- policing is harmful and hurtful.”

Ms. Krulee said she wanted to make absolutely clear that she was not saying it was okay to ignore or diminish the harm that has been invoked on families and children. She said she was just asking whether there was any advantage to keeping some aspect of the relationship with School Resource Officers.

Other Board members questioned whether it was necessary to have four police cars show up for an ambulance visit to the schools, and whether the SROs needed to wear police uniforms when they are at the schools. One social worker asked if police officers needed to carry their guns in a visible manner while at the schools. 

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...