Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently trumpeted a new policing venture that applies the citywide CompStat system for tracking and attacking crimes to his city's public schools. He called it "quality of life improvement" and a way to "promote safety in our schools."
Of course, that depends entirely on which end of the billy club a student finds him or herself. Policing in Chicago's schools arguably diminishes the quality of life, and more to the point, the educations of thousands of kids who get on the wrong side of the law. And it isn't very hard to do, according to a new report from Chicago nonprofit Project NIA, which promotes community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth crime. Called "Policing Chicago Public Schools: A Gateway to the School-to-Prison Pipeline," the brief reveals the statistics behind the dramatic incursion of police and policing strategies into the city's schools. It is not a pretty picture.
About 20 percent of all arrests of juveniles effected in Chicago are made on public school grounds, according to the 2010 data wrested from the Chicago Police Department by authors Frank Edwards and Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA. And the vast majority of the total number, 5,574 arrests, were several crimes considered "non-index" crimes of lesser importance. Disorderly conduct and battery, which essentially translate as fighting in school, and drug-related offenses, were tops. What it means is that the kind of hallway skirmish which 20 years ago would have meant a trip to the principal's office now means handcuffs and a ride to juvenile court. Principals in some schools have abdicated their authority for creating safe schools by turning over that paramount mission to law enforcement, and all students are put at risk.
Chicago schools enroll some 410,000 students, 45 percent of them black, 41 percent Latino, 9 percent white and the rest Asian and Native American. Black students make up the lopsided majority of school-based arrests, with 74 percent, and of those the majority are males. It's the same racial disproportionality that education researchers have found in the way school suspensions and expulsions are meted out in districts nationally. It's no wonder Kaba and Edwards and many others talk about the school-to-prison pipeline that funnels at-risk kids from failing schools into the juvenile justice system.
The authors dish up some other sobering data on policing's costs, literally, and on Illinois' efforts to put public schools ever deeper into the police dragnet. They note that Chicago schools last summer planned to add 80 surveillance cameras in 14 high schools at a cost of $7 million -- at a time when the whole system faced a $600 million deficit. The police department charges the school system $25 million a year for the services of its police officers in the public schools, and the schools pay close to that much for other security personnel. Talk about criminal offenses.
If school violence and crime were rampant in Chicago, it would be easy to rationalize turning schools into a police state with scarce funding. But the hardliners have been banging the drum on school violence for so long that the general public hasn't heard the old news: school violence and crime has been on a steady decline since its peak in 1992-1993. The kind of Columbine-like incidents that sent Americans into hysterics over school safety are the outliers and have more to do with the easy availability of guns than anything else.
Where threats to safe schools exist -- and they do exist, there always will be problem behaviors -- proactive approaches to creating safe school climates are abundant and cheap compared to policing. Restorative justice, which gives students, teachers and administrators the authority to hold wrongdoers accountable in meaningful ways, is gaining wider favor and practice. Chicago's school board has at least paid lip service to putting restorative justice in its schools. Oakland, Ca. schools are adopting restorative justice programs after seeing traditional punishments and policing as losing strategies. Conflict resolution, peer mediation and other approaches not only address safety and discipline issues, they help enhance the educational quality of life for all players.
Yet the vested interests -- police departments and private security companies that reap profits off school contracts, the security systems companies lusting after million-dollar contracts, and politicians like Rahm Emanuel who inflate their images as tough-on-crime -- are powerful and continue to hype the dangers of public schools and students. But in the immortal words of Public Enemy, don't believe the hype.