Evanston Police Officer and ETHS School Resource Officer Tanya Jenkins
Submitted photo
Evanston Police Officer and ETHS School Resource Officer Tanya Jenkins Submitted photo

Before approving the budget at their Sept. 21 meeting, District 202 Board members spent more than an hour discussing School Resource Officers (SROs) and their role and place in Evanston Township High School.

Compared to their comments at the July 13 Board meeting, the thoughts expressed by several Board members appeared to be less sympathetic to having SROs in the building and more concerned about the possible damaging effect on some students.

There was some push-and-pull between administrators, who strongly supported the SRO program, and some Board members whose support appeared to be waning.

A letter from 11 health-care professionals who care for the physical and emotional health of children – 10 medical doctors and one family nurse-practitioner – said “the presence of School Resource Officers at ETHS has negative health and educational impacts for the very students most in need of support – those who have experienced toxic stress and/or had negative interactions with law enforcement in the past.  Unfortunately, Black, Latinx, and other racial minorities, as well as students with disabilities and LGBTQ students, make up a majority of those students.” (See sidebar for full letter.)

ETHS administrators presented a video about School Resource Officers at ETHS – at present, Evanston Police Officers Loyce Spells and Tanya Jenkins. In the video, students of different races praised the SRO program and the work of Officers Jenkins and Spells.

“We here at ETHS are very satisfied with their service that we have been receiving with the philosophy towards working with young people,” said Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. “We have used them in teaching and restorative practices.”

 “We want to take a minute and review the SRO program here at ETHS and why it's so important. One of the messages I think you're going to get as you listen to this program is the stereotype of what an SRO program might be in other schools is not an SRO program at ETHS. ,” said Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell.

“We know that there's over policing in schools. We know there is a criminalization. …  We know that students and kids feel like they're constantly under surveillance. This is not happening here,” he said.

SROs are part of the ETHS culture, administrators have said; the program has been in place for 14 years. According to information on the ETHS website, https://www.eths.k12.il.us/, the high school and the Evanston Police Department established the SRO program “as part of an intergovernmental agreement to improve school safety and the learning environment. While the primary role of the SROs is to protect students and staff from external threats, such as a school shooter on campus, the SRO program at ETHS focuses on restorative practices that support a sense of connectedness within the school community. … SROs are part of the school’s problem-solving, mentoring, social emotional wellbeing, and student engagement efforts. Students have an opportunity to build relationships with the SROs through community programs, Public Safety courses, Peace Circles, and other initiatives.”

Discussion

Although the SROs are not directly involved in student discipline – that is handled by the deans, administrators said – some Board felt there is a connection between the two, so further discussion was referred to the Board’s Discipline Committee.    

Board President Pat Savage-Williams said of the video, “As an African American woman, with African American family members, by my experience with police officers hasn't been positive. And I and I tend to feel quite a bit of intimidation. So I know that I have a reaction. So it's helpful to have a counter narrative.”

Dr. Witherspoon responded that at ETHS, “some of the systemic racism that we know about in some police departments we never witnessed. In fact, we have witnessed exactly the opposite. We've witnessed a real understanding of equity or an ability understanding of belonging and honoring our students presence in the school. What we've seen is them taking a helping role, [but it] doesn't mean they're not police officers.”

Board Vice President Monique Parson said she is more concerned with the many layers of discipline at ETHS. “I'm truly appreciative of the SROs and [I] understand that, that work to build relationships, that that's in line with that equity work. However I am concerned with [how] it relates to certain pockets in our community. So overall, I'm concerned with this notion of how certain neighborhoods, certain communities are over policed, and what that trauma does for our students. … So I think about the safety officers … I think about the SROs. So to me, there are layers to it. And I think there's opportunity to look at that in its entirety to see what message what are we trying to do in creating a very welcoming community especially to our Black males, right?

“Because we know, when we look at the discipline we see them at the top; when we look at our community, we see them being stopped for by police officers in our community. So I have to examine the entire system, and then look for opportunities for us to improve upon what we have. …

“I have to think about that experience that that child is having or that student is having when they see an officer walking down the hallway that resembles that officer that just stopped their father weeks ago. Right? So this conversation is important. It's needed and it needs to continue. I also believe that Evanston Township High School is ahead of the curve in regards to how we look at systems and how we address those systems. … I just want us to look at the totality of how we present discipline, and I want us to examine what opportunities exist for us to improve upon that.”

Board member Jude Laude said, “In my view, is not about the individuals in question [Officers Jenkins and Spells]. … I know those individuals in that respect and value their work. … I don't believe you need to have uniformed officers in space face in order to help build the community. I don't believe you need the uniformed officers in the space in order to help facilitate a restorative culture. As a matter of fact, I think it's an opportunity for us to fully commit to transforming the culture of ETHS from punitive to a restorative culture. …

“We've made some ground of helping to transform our culture. But there needs to be many more students, trained, enabled to facilitate circles. Because the power of it actually, is when the peers take this work. And they lead because they oftentimes are more impressionable on each other than an adult could ever be. So I'm going to, again, it's not about the individuals, but it's about purpose, roles and responsibility. And it's about historical and generational trauma. And it's about current trauma that's being inflicted on the Black and Brown communities. So this is not something that we're talking about this simply happening. Historically, it's happening every day. And oftentimes, students because of encounters with the police, either directly or through a family member, have PTSD. If you've seen a family member having negative interaction with a police officer, have you seen it on TV, if you viewed it – as we're very fortunate in Evanston, that it's not something that we're used to here, but there are instances in Evanston when there's been questionable behavior and engagement. … I think the relationship can still be nourished without the officers physically being in the building. …

“How are we reimagining safety? How are we thinking about that differently?”

Mr. Laude added he thinks the school has moved away from looking at a kid who's acting up or in trouble – whatever term you want to use – we're more and more looking at ‘What's the problem? What's behind it?’” He said he also sees as positive the number of interventions for students and the hiring of more social workers. “So I feel like we are really moving in the right direction.”

Board member Pat Maunsell asked whether the SROs are called for help because they are in the building.

Dr. Campbell said, “The SROs aren't really called. And they're not called, if there's someone in trouble or anything like that. The SROs are only brought in when something gets escalated to a police matter. … Let's say there was a confrontation with students in the community. We don't want that confrontation coming into the schools. .. And mediation and family. Sometimes it's family members. So if it’s a situation that happened over the weekend, that we need to know about being aware of things like that. But they're not called if there's a fight. …They don't serve that function here. They really serve as a resource for prevention for what we don't want to occur.”

Administrators also brought up the annual 5essentials survey, on which ETHS students said they felt safer in the high school that outside – a comment that was countered by some Board members saying students who take the survey may not be representative of the student body as a whole.

Board member Gretchen Livingston said had pored through several years’ worth of the Evanston Police Department’s annual reports but was not able to ascertain which actions and arrests related specifically to ETHS students and activities on ETHS property. She said, “I think this is our role as a as a Board … to get that kind of information to get it delivered in a regular way, in a way that we can decipher so that I don't have to scrounge around through these annual reports from the police department, which by the way, are fascinating.” She added, “I would say parking is such a big issue that if we could fix parking in Evanston, apparently we could do away with half of the police force. So that is something I learned in the in this review, but I'm not talking about parking, I'm talking about our kids.”

Dr. Witherspoon added, “Whenever there's a domestic situation with the kid and a family or any allegations of abuse, sexual abuse, the SRO is always involved.”

Dr. Witherspoon suggested the Board create a resolution that would have the force of an executive order, describing what they wished to have in an SRO program. Ms. Parsons and Mr. Laude said it is difficult for Black and Brown people to complain about police officers or actions, fearing retaliation.

Ms. Parsons said she thought any such document should acknowledge the trauma experienced by many Black and Brown students. “I definitely want us to think about reimagining reforming, improving, making it known to our students that we recognize what they're going through what they may be experiencing, and, and come together with something that's more comprehensive…. We don't only have an issue with us on our own, we have an issue with how things are perceived.” She also said she was “extremely impressed by the tone and the different the narrative that's being shared.”

The discussion of SROs will likely be taken up in a future meeting of the Board’s Discipline Committee, which Ms. Parsons chairs.