At their July 13 meeting, which began at 8 a.m. and was held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, School District 202 Board members and administrators spent more than an hour discussing Evanston Township High School’s school resource officer (SRO) program.

Board members acknowledged the national context of the discussion – a demand to “defund” police, that is reallocate resources to social services that address many of the root causes of crime. They also indicated that this discussion was only the beginning, not the definitive resolution of what some members of the community see as a problem – the presence of police officers in the high school.

Before he read the emails urging the School Board to terminate its school resource office (SRO) program, Assistant Superintendent Pete Bavis clarified that the SROs were an item for discussion rather than action. “There is no posted action item on this today. It's just a discussion, starting discussion,” he said.

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.

“The SROs work with the ETHS Safety Department on emergency response and with the ETHS Deans who oversee the school's discipline code.” At present, Evanston Police Officer Tanya Jenkins and Loyce Spells are the SROs at ETHS (see sidebar).

Dr. Bavis read the letters submitted for public comment, and these – particularly the one from the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy – appeared to provide a framework for the discussion that followed.

Board members said they welcomed comments and discussion and hoped to find ways to get more specific information from staff and students. There was no consensus except to continue the discussion about police presence via SROs at ETHS.

Moran Center: Remove Police Officers From ETHS, Invest in Other Student Supports

Writing on behalf of the Moran Center, the Center’s Board Chair Betsy Lehman wrote, “We plainly urge the board to remove the school resource officers from their permanent post on campus … The close proximity of law enforcement to students on campus directly contributes to the local school-to-prison pipeline, despite the best efforts of ETHS’s SRO is to divert youth in the juvenile justice system and employ restorative interventions.

“The SRO has played an inherent role in policing, investigating and arresting ETHS students. And when officers are employed in a full time capacity on campus, they inevitably become involved in situations where their involvement is unwarranted and causes matters to escalate. …

“To illustrate, the Moran Center has witnessed the following scenario multiple times at ETHS: A student engages in physically aggressive acts on school grounds that SROs are invited to intervene and then due to the officer’s mere presence, the complainant presses for the SRO to arrest the aggressor, a student. As exemplified here the proximity of law enforcement, regardless of their intentions contributes to the criminalization of student misbehavior.”

Ms. Lehman’s letter said the Moran Center’s response was not prompted by any action of either Officer Spells or Officer Jenkins but was “rather a response to the policy of permanently stationing officers at ETHS. The Moran Center does not discount the transformative restorative contributions being made by officers from the Evanston Police Department, including ETHS SROs Tanya Jenkins and Loyce Spells. But focusing on personalities even friends like Officers Jenkins and Spells distracts from the structural and systemic harm caused by their positions.

“We appreciate your SROs’ engagement in mediating student conflict, counseling and de-escalation. However, we firmly believe that within the school environment these are roles best suited for social workers, psychologists, teachers and staff not law enforcement. … We of course support efforts by law enforcement and building community relationships. But that objective can be accomplished outside of the school environment by urging the removal of SROs from ETHS. …

“We are not advocating for police officers to be precluded from for doing critical community relationships, particularly with Evanston youth. On the contrary, we commend officers’ current efforts to build a more restorative community through programs such as the Officer and Gentlemen Academy and STAR Academy.”

The letter also noted that Oak Park/River Forest High School had decided the week before to terminate its SRO program and said that although School District 65 “fell short of terminating its memorandum of understanding with the City of Evanston” for SROs, the District now uses them for emergency planning.

The Moran Center letter also said research has shown “that police presence in the school environment can have a damaging impact on students’ physical and psychological well-being as well as their academic outcomes. Frequent student interactions with police can act as a psychological trigger and overtime, resulting anxiety lack of motivation and aggressive behavior.” The letter cited a 2018 study released by the University of Texas at Austin that found “that higher police presence in schools was associated with higher rates of discipline, lower rates of high school graduation and a decrease in college enrollment.”

Saying “Police officers are not the answer to school safety,” the Moran Center letter urged the Board to remove the SROs permanently and invest in other means to make the students safer and meet their developmental and mental health needs.

Other Comments: Remove, Keep SROs

ETHS alum and Evanston resident Nick Davis wrote to “encourage the School Board to end the practice of having SROs at ETHS. Research has been coming out for decades now, which shows a direct relationship between the presence of SRO in schools and students increased exposure to the criminal justice system, thereby funneling them into the school-to-prison pipeline. While the two SRO in the school at the moment may thankfully not reflect what is typical for SROs across the country, they unfortunately are exceptions to the norm. The culture of policing since its inception all the way to the present day is one that does not align with the equity standards.

“We can see that having SROs in schools in Evanston is counterproductive to not only achievement and well-being of students that is alluded to in many of the District's statements on equity and achievement, but it also is detrimental to the staff and building visitors who belong to communities” with uneasy relationships to police.

Rising ETHS senior Isabel Bass wrote, “I believe that school resource officers should be taken out of ETHS. It has recently come to my attention that … ETHS has contracts with two armed Evanston police officers who are stationed by their employers … to potentially solve problems that the ETHS safety doesn't want to have facilities for.” The “presence of police in a place of education perpetuates a systemic violence upon students of color in the cycle of the school to prison pipeline” and dehumanizes “Black and Brown young folk.”

Michelle Ellen Weldon wrote she has worked in special education classrooms, and she supports the removal of SROs. “I think our schools would be safer and better supported with removal of SROs, who only encouraged punitive treatment and enable to the school- to-prison pipeline.”

Danny Prophet Jr. asked the Board to “cut ties with Evanston Police Department’s having cops on ETHS [property]. … Policing in schools criminalizes and enacts violence against … Black, Brown and Indigenous students. Having police at ETHS legitimizes a system that is at its core white supremacist … and it furthers the school-to-prison pipeline.” He suggested increasing the number of ETHS staff members who are CPI trained and expand wraparound supports such as mental health services, food and housing supports and violence prevention.

Sophie Legendre wrote to communicate “my absolute support for removing all SROs from Evanston Township High School. …  Please also add to this action by increasing the number of ETHS staff members who are CPI trained and the number of mental health professionals in the building.”

A letter from Lydia – no last name given – said she supports “the removal of the school resource officers from all Evanston schools. Rather than increasing safety training, [having] SROs in schools is linked to an increased number of suspensions, expulsions and arrests. [It] does not lead to future success but instead directly feeds the school to prison pipeline, as SROs are especially dangerous to Black and Brown students and should be removed as soon as possible."

ETHS parents Robert and Kathy Granger wrote in support of SROs: “We believe [they must be] be well trained, police must be a part of the safety team at ETHS. … To ensure much needed safety and security protocols are enforced, a well-trained police officer can serve as a role model and mentor. At the same time we support an increase in funding for mental health services in the district.”

Administrator Defend ETHS SRO Program

After a nearly two-hour discussion about the reopening of school for the 2020-21 academic year, Board President Pat Savage-Williams had to leave the School Board meeting for a different one, and Board Vice President Monique Parsons presided over a discussion of SROs. 

Administrators were quick to point out that SROs at ETHS have a different philosophy and role than do SROs at many other schools.

Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell suggested that those who would remove the SROs “look at our FAQs that we have on our SRO program. You can see that our SROs are not engaged in managing student behavior; that is a function of our Deans. You won't see a teacher sending a kid to the SRO, his office or an SRO come in and pull the kid out of the classroom. … And so we we've been on a journey with this, not to say that our past practices have always been perfect, but we have definitely been evolving.

“And we've learned some of these lessons over the years to bring us to a place where we're engaging SROs and we're engaging with us in a restorative process. … You can see why they have to wear body cameras and they're very intentional about when they turn those on and off. The SROs are involved in our restorative practice. I think it is a very powerful image to see a an officer working with the family or working with students … and also working with families to resolve whatever conflicts that are bubbling up in school, bubbling up in the hallway.

“So I am very pleased at our relationship and would not want to just simply be in a place where we don't see that we would have a need for a presence like that in our school.

Instead of calling 911, “we'd much rather have people who were present who know the kids who know the culture, who know how we operate and do things to be responding to that,” Dr. Campbell said.

He also said he believes ETHS is the only school in the country where the SRO is also a teacher. “We're talking about a real partnership, where our SROs have partnered with our public safety course to actually teach kids.

“And the last thing I'll say is this: We recognize that there are kids who have a lot of externalizing behaviors that kind of lead them to have high recidivism in the dean's office. That is why we have worked really hard to engage in more restorative practices and to hire social workers, or people with some clinical background as our deans. … We’ve done some restructuring of our academic intervention program. And we've hired two new social workers, both women of color, and are very proud to have them joining our staff. … These externalizing behaviors don't need to be criminalized; they don't need to be arrested. They need mental health support and that is what we are offering for our students.”

Dr. Bavis said one SRO co-teaches the public safety course for “students who've expressed an interest in a public safety career, be that in the police force, or EMT, or the fire department. … I think of the SROs as an essential piece of the school. I think of them as a part of our well-being team for students, but also as teachers, which is also critically important.

“So much more goes into their role here at ETHS than in other places. … Our SROs are in class teaching, which I think is a stark distinction between the typical view of SROs.”

He said he did not have any data on arrests by SROs and referred to the annual 5essential survey, which found “92% of our students report that people at ETHS are friendly and more students feel safe in our hallways than feel safe coming to and from school. I think that's a really significant piece of data. Eighty-eight percent of our students feel safe in the hallways, and 76% of students feel safe coming to and from school. So, students feel safer here. Is it causal? Is it corollary? I don't know; I'm just putting the numbers out there in terms of students feel safer within the context of ETHS.”

He also offered other data that he said “disrupts that prison-to- pipeline kind of piece. … We keep our students here; we graduate our students. Students feel safe here at Evanston Township High School. And, you know, to isolate race and look at our freshmen: Ninety-three percent of the black male freshmen last year earned 12 credits or more and were on track to graduate and actively participate in their post-secondary school plan.

“Again, we make it a complete sort of wraparound kind of support system here at ETHs. And our SROs, although they're not wholly responsible for this, they are a part of it in a positive, positive way. Again, I will leave you with a distinction. At other schools, you see the SRO is in a hallway barking at kids. At ETHS that SRO is actually teaching in a classroom, not doing that policing in the hallways at all.”

Board Members: More Discussion, Information Needed

Ms. Parsons thanked the administrators and reiterated that this was a discussion. “This is a process. You don't just talk about this [only] one time. … This is really important and sensitive to our community and our school, so we're going to start engaging in this conversation … and then plan to continue this, I’m sure, over time, but we can start at least the dialogue right now.”

Board member Gretchen Livingston said, “This topic is hugely important. There's so much swirling around in not just our community, but across the country right now. … And I can appreciate the concerns that have been raised. We’ve gotten a lot of emails in the last 24-36 hours from people who are really concerned in the community about SROs, and I want to touch on some of the particular questions raised in those emails.

“I really appreciate that people are weighing in on this. I would be more interested in hearing about more productive concerns with SROS, because sending me an email that asks us to get rid of SROs from the school without any detail … There's sort of this form email that we're getting. It's not as helpful to me as I would like it to be. … Tell me about the interaction you had with an SRO at our school. 

“Don't speak to me generally, because I think Marcus [Campbell] and Eric [Witherspoon] and Pete [Bavis] have all done a really good job articulating why we are different at ETHS. And we are different, not just around SROs, but we are different a whole bunch of ways. So if there is a particular issue that we need to be concerned about our SROs, I want to hear about it.”

She mentioned that, when the Board discussed SROs in April, no one came to the meeting or wrote to object. (Link:https://evanstonroundtable.com/Content/Schools/Schools/Article/ETHS-Board-Approves-Agreement-for-School-Resource-Officers/16/27/16431?s=1)

“So, the broad brush, you know, ‘Let's get on the bandwagon and get rid of a SROs’ just isn't as helpful to me as, as a more thoughtful discussion.

Ms. Livingston also said she had some questions for the administrators about what was being done, what could be done, how and in what manner SROs have prevented the arrest of students, and, finally, what students and staff think about having the SROs in the school building.

  • “We need CPI training, Crisis Prevention Institute training,” she said. “Is that something we should do? Do we do it now? If not, why not?
  • “How many arrests have been made by officers in school, not just last year, but the last five or 10 – ideally, as long as we've had our SROs? How often does that happen? I mean, there's just we have to have data.
  • And we have to have a system in which we get that data on a very regular basis so that we can monitor it. I mean, that's what the school board is about. We're about accountability.
  • “And, relatedly, what are the stats on the positive interventions by our SROs, what are the situations? And how can we track, if we don't already, the situations where SROs have made a positive difference with our students and intervened to prevent an arrest. … Let’s really think hard about where they've made an actual intervention.”

A student and staff survey, Ms. Livingston suggested, could ask questions such as “What do you think of SROs? How are they impacting you? Are they impacting you positively or negatively?” With questions like that and room for comment, she said, “I think we can operate from a place of knowledge, informed understanding.”

Board member Pat Maunsell said she agreed with Ms. Parsons, “This is not a one-off conversation but longer.” She asked what a typical day for an SRO is like and what the results and effects of their actions are.

“I completely trust Marcus and the administration. If they say these people are who they are, that's great, I believe you 100%,” Ms. Maunsell said, adding, “but I think we have to think systemically, too, about just having armed dressed or, you know, officers, uniformed officers in our building. What is the impact of that?”

She echoed Ms. Livingston’s request to hear from parents and students. “We’re all paying attention to this and reading the research. There are a lot of indications particularly for black male students that just their presence in the building is something that's stressful. … Now, you know, we could dig into that. … And I really want to hear from the students, all students, but especially students of color, who often have had outside of our school experiences with police officers, that just their sheer presence in their building might be something that's stressful to them.”

Board member Jude Laude said it is important to “think globally about the issue. “[I]f this is a community wide [and] nationwide issue, I think we should remain mindful that this is not about an exception. … This is about deconstructing systems practices and policies that have traditionally been disproportionately impactful in a negative way to the Black and Brown community.

“The mere presence of an officer in a building in a school impacts subconsciously students that don't feel safe from police. And that's a societal issue.

“ETHS cannot shoulder the blame for that, but we can be part of deconstructing those systems.”

He said restorative justice is “part of my life … [I]t’s rethinking [how] people can exist in spaces where they can feel safe and be their authentic selves. An individual, a scholar, a student, who may not have had negative interaction with police, however, maybe their father, their uncle, their brother has. ...

“And I think we really need to take a hard look at this data – disaggregated. I would really like to see the level of engagement with students and disaggregated by race. Because some students may feel safe; others may not. And as it relates to equity, the goal is for all students to feel safe. I think we really need to take a hard look at that data. Whatever it reveals we need to help it inform whatever final decision that we come up.”

Saying he knows one of the SROs very well, Mr. Laude added, “It's not about individuals. Of course, it's going to look differently in Evanston, because, typically, we are very progressive. … All I'm saying is that we need to consider that this is a global national issue going on and the youth are driving this conversation.”

He also said he would like to see data that reflects all students at ETHS, since “typically Black and Brown students aren't very responsive” to the 5essentials survey.

Board member Elizabeth Rolewicz said many Board members had already brought up her concerns. She noted however, “ETHS continues to fall within the top 20% of racial disproportionality and discipline according to ISBE [the Illinois State Board of Education]. And so I think we need to always just stay vigilant of this. I don't know if it's a matter of SROs or if it's the deans or something else within our discipline policies that is continuing to put us in the top 20% of having this disproportionality.”

She also asked how much control ETHS has over the appointment of the SROs.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said the administration has no control of the appointment but has the power to reject “anybody that would simply not be acceptable to us.”

Board member Stephanie Teterycz said she agreed that this should be a continuing conversation both at the Board level and in the community.

“I'm thinking a lot about systemic racism and how we, to Jude's point, absolutely have to look at this in totality in a holistic global sort of sense. And be mindful of that and factor that into our thinking and into our considerations and at the same time, systemic racism can only be really tackled at the ground level, at the community level. And at the individual level, we have our spheres of influence and our roles to play in dismantling systemic racism.”

Noting that funding for the SRO does not come from the ETHS budget, Ms. Teterycz added, “On the other hand, maybe there's a way to think about this that's not systemic, which is to take a situation that exists in a system and in the structure and in the relationship between EPD and ETHS. Does it actually say, ‘Wait a second?’ How are we going to have some kind of safety presence in our building that isn't armed? How do we actually take more control and more thought into developing a relationship that's more based on what we need and what our students need and what our community needs, rather than just working within the existing system?

“In answer to this problem – and I don't I don't have answers and I'm not suggesting any answers, but I am thinking a lot about the fact that we have an opportunity here to, to really be very, very thoughtful and have a meaningful discussion and make some meaningful change and be responsive to our community and to our students and to one another.

“That that's disruptive and compassionate and forward thinking and healthy and takes all of that into account.”

Ms. Livingston said the high school hired a career counselor with its own money when it accepted the SROs at City expense, “because we were recognizing that we're here to support our students.

“We're not here to have police officers just roaming the hallways, so the idea was to get somebody on at our cost to expand our capacity to address those employment opportunities for students who may not be going to a four-year college. … On this we had some thoughtful discussion around what our students’ needs are, what our school needs.”

Dr. Witherspoon said the school did hire an employment counselor in conjunction with accepting the SROs and is now funding another counselor, both positions designed to help nurture students into post-secondary careers.

Ms. Parsons said having courageous conversations around racial justice is not new for the Board. So, just defunding the police doesn't do it for me; it's defining what that looks like. But there are layers to the experience that our children should not be receiving regarding policing.

“And that starts with how to develop behaviors and relationships and create a sense of belonging … so it's broader than just SROs.

“I want our students all of our students to have a positive interaction with responsible caring adults, but I also want them to get the resources they need to be emotionally, socially, emotionally, mentally healthy. … So, I'm looking at the entire system and I have questions about the entire system: How do we support the entire system as we see it as building relationships and correcting behavior intervening in behaviors?

“Because for me, again, it's not just SROs. It's that it's the connection points along the way, so that we are not creating a system or pipeline. That's, that's critical. We cannot be in that business.

“This is the start of a conversation. So if you thought we were making a mistake, that's not how we work. We're going to continue to have this conversation and dialogue and continue to address some of the concerns that that have been lifted. But it's not over.”