Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook and Deputy Chiefs Aretha Barnes, left, and Melissa Salucti, right
Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook and Deputy Chiefs Aretha Barnes, left, and Melissa Salucti, right

School Resource Officers took center stage at the Q&A session hosted on July 20 by Mayor Stephen Hagerty. Evanston Police Chief Demitrous Cook, Deputy Police Chiefs Aretha Barnes and Melissa Salucti, Officers Loyce Spells and Mario Miller, Evanston Township High School Assistant Superintendent/Principal Marcus Campbell, District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton and Northwestern University Police Chief Bruce Lewis were on the program, available via Facebook and broadcast on cable channel 16.

The nationwide momentum to “defund” police departments – that is, reallocate resources to social services – is combined in Evanston with local calls to remove police officers from Evanston schools, and the discussion centered largely on Evanston Police Officers, called school resource officers (SROs), assigned to each School District.

At present, two School Resource Officers are assigned to School District 65 and two to District 202. Over the past year, District 65 has restricted its SROs to emergency planning and threat assessment, eliminating most of not all contact with students.

The City pays the salaries of the SROs, as they are sworn members of the Evanston Police Department. The cost of the four SROs, including salaries and benefits, is just over $500,000 – 1.23% of the Police Department’s budget, Chief Cook said.

Although the SROs adhere to the policies of the school as appropriate, their allegiance is to the Evanston Police Department.

Since the lockdown and closure of schools, Chief Cook said, the SROs have been reassigned to patrol duty.

School District 202 has continued to integrate its SROs into the school culture, saying their presence has a positive effect on school climate. At their July 13 meeting, however, District 202 Board members discussed SROs, responding to emails and calls to eliminate them from ETHS. Board members said they would hold additional discussions.

SROs at ETHS

Dr. Campbell described the relationship between the SROs and the high school, echoing many of the comments he and other administrators made at the July 13 ETHS School Board meeting.

He said the SROs at ETHS – at present, Officer Loyce Spells and Officer Tanya Jenkins – to “provide a positive school culture. … Our SROs have been partners; we consider them like our staff. They're here every day. They interface with students they interface with teachers and administrators.”

He said the school deans, not the SROs, address issues of student behavior, and safety department personnel monitor the hallways, cafeterias and parking lots.

He said SROs training in restorative practices and usually interact with students “around preventions and interventions that we have in place. It's not a punitive system, but more ‘How do we get students connected to the resources in the community? How do we get them connected to resources here at ETHS? How do we get them connected to whatever supports that they need?’ Whether they're having some externalizing behaviors or internalizing behaviors, we really want them to be and feel supported. …

“I have seen Officer Spells and Officer Jenkins engage in some of the most powerful, restorative circles if the parties are willing participants, and I've seen them go out of their way to really make sure that those relationships are maintained after that these incidents have occurred. … [W]e don't really want our students to see our SROs as punitive and as agents of surveillance, but we really want to see them as educators. And they've done that; they've done a good job at that.

“And with 31 mental health professionals here at ETHS, we know that there's some things that are still police matters [that] should be handled by those who are trying to do that. So we have in our equity journey here at ETHS. We certainly understand the conversation about policing in our communities.

“We certainly understand the disproportionate number of Black and Brown communities that are impacted by policing and surveillance and the school-to-prison pipeline that is very much a part of our forefront in our thinking – which is why we engage our SROS in a different way.

Officer Spells gave a short history of SROs, saying the Police Department in Flint, Mich., in 1958 was the first police department to implement a school-police program. This was done “with the sole purpose of improving relationships between the police in youth relations.” Ten years after that, in 1968, the Evanston Police Department created its program, he said.

“One of the responsibilities of an SRO is to make yourself available to staff and to the administration of the high school. So, we field phone calls and email, text messages, at home on weekends, holidays, and our addressing issues before we even arrive at the school. … [T]hings happen overnight, and things happen on the way to school. So, we try to respond to those things as quickly as we can.”

He said his typical day begins with checking reports from the day before to see if there are issues or concerns about which to alert the administration.

“For me first period is a teaching opportunity. So I'm coming into school and greeting staff and students and running off to first period class and teaching there.

“And after that, we're pretty busy with meetings throughout the day. Some of those are set meetings. Others are unplanned and informal meetings with students. I like to share all often that I'm meeting with students about things that are not police-related whatsoever. Some people know that we actually have a chess board and checker board in our office and so we have students that have come by during their lunch period, playing checkers with us, we talked about prom and homecoming and a number of other things.

“We are just like the title states; we are a resource.”

One attendee questioned why the high school has chosen to use police officers rather than social workers to connect students with resources.

Dr. Campbell said, “It's a great question. Yes. And I'll restate that we have 31 mental health professionals here in ETHS every single day, and they're servicing about 3,800 kids. … I just want to reiterate that there are some things that are simply police matters, that I would not want to expose or put in jeopardy any staff member will be trained professionals who know how to deal with certain types of ideations, if you will.

“And if there are, you know, weapons involved, I certainly would not want to risk the lives of our mental health professionals. There are trained and people who are trained to handle these kinds of situations. And that's what we really rely on the SROs for. … For us it's not a binary; it's ‘both and.’ Our mental health professionals work very closely with our school resource officers regarding how do we support kids in there, maybe harming themselves or harming others or whatever the case may be. It's an all-hands team approach in keeping the 4500 people [students and staff] in this building safe every single day.”

Asked what equipment the SROs wear at the high school, Officer Spells said “We are in standard blue uniform. And our duty belt. and that's about it other than perhaps as a school book that we're carrying around, that is about it, we are there not to appear to be to police to the students.”

By email in response to a question from the RoundTable, Officer Spells said he and Officer Jenkins each have a ballistic vest, with a body-worn camera, “but we don’t always wear the vest around the school. Often times we wear only our uniform shirt and pants along with our duty belt, which includes handcuffs, Taser, expandable baton, pepper spray, magazine pouch, and disposable gloves. Of course we also carry our sidearm on our holster as well.” this is helpful.

SROs at District 65

District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said the change in attitude toward SROs occurred about two years ago. At present, he said, “We use our SROs to support around the perimeters of our school. We try to, we also partner with our SROs for emergency planning . … There’s a lot that was just pushed in place by Illinois, which we have we work with our SROs. They help us create as a part of our threat assessment team. … And there's no better organization to help us prepare to, you know, to best combat that than SROs.

“But we have used other strategies to work with our students. There is some healing that needs to take place in our communities, especially for our most marginalized students.

“And our Board and our School District has taken the firm position on making that the work that we do internally, we've pushed a lot of restorative practices into our schools. … We have a very heavy support for our homes, our social workers as well. And we're going to continue to work in that way. … We're planning for our greatest threat assessments and emergency planning for schools.”

Mario Miller, one of the SROs assigned to District 65 schools, said, “I'm coming into this into this position of looking at this from two sides of a coin. Prior to me becoming a police officer – I've been a police officer for 19 years – I was a school teacher for four years in Chicago Public School System and Carbondale. …

“So, my understanding comes from being on the educational side of the of the token and also on the law enforcement side as well.

 At District 65 now, he said “We basically do the lockdown drills and do the basics to make sure that our schools are safe in case of an active shooter or some type of other situation that needs to have police presence.

“We also are trained in crisis intervention, which teaches us to understand some of the ideas and some of the things that are going on with some students.

“In the last couple of years, we've had to modify our model of what of what we do when we began this journey. … We began this journey as checking in with the principals checking in with the schools.

“I wanted to set up some different things with the with the students so that we could try to get some type of relationship, some bonding, to let them know – because sometimes you might have a kid you might have a family that might have all negative interactions with police.

“No matter what the situation may be, we try to create that environment where our students are understanding at least there's one officer or somebody that looks like them that can affect them in a manner where it's a positive interaction.

“Well, we've gone over to a situation where this year we decided to go into a model where we start to do more parameters, still checking in with the with the principal to make sure that everything is flow well in their schools … just to make the schools a safer environment to make sure that to make sure that, if there are any issues, we can address them. And you know, everybody can be safe at the end of the day.”

Officer Miller is vice president of the Officer and Gentlemen Academy, an after-school program for young Black males that offers homework help, mentoring and social activities. It was implemented first at Nichols Middle School as a cooperative effort between the school and the Police Department. The program has expanded to other District 65 schools and ETHS, with several EPD officers and community members involved.

Questions From Attendees

Arrests in recent years have gone down, Officer Spells said in answer to a question from one of the attendees.  He added, “We have to understand what is those what those numbers look like for an arrest. An arrest could consist simply of a student’s being brought to the station and their parents meeting us there to discuss the issue. And then they go home with the parents – never handcuffed, not jailed in any capacity. But because they were not free to leave, and they had to address the issue that there was an arrest.”

Dr. Campbell added, “Those arrests may not even be students at all. They could just be it could be an adult. They could be anything we have to separate kids and adults. Because that arrest is 1600 Dodge, it is not necessarily something student-related.”

Another question was why calling 911 was not sufficient – rather than having police officers on-site.

Dr. Campbell said, “Having someone in the room who knows the kids and may be familiar with the situation and is much better equipped initially to handle that scenario. If Office Spells needs support, he has direct line of his colleagues to be able to get the support that he needs, but I'd much rather have someone who's in the school knows the kids, knows the situation, maybe even knows boy. … But you just never know given what's happening. You want to have a rapid response with someone who was familiar with the students and might be familiar with the situation.”

Officer Spells said, “Certainly, if we were there only in a law enforcement capacity, that would be a issue. But we're also serving in a informal counselor capacity, as well as an educator. So we're serving multiple roles, and not solely responding to emergencies.”

The next Q&A on policing in Evanston, scheduled for noon on July 27, will cover use of force and body-worn cameras.