Chicago Teachers Join the Nationwide Movement to Kick Cops Out of Schools

Indigo Olivier June 17, 2020

Demonstrators protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, the United States, on May 30, 2020. (Xinhua/ via Getty Images)

The upris­ings fol­low­ing the Min­neapo­lis police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed Black man, have artic­u­lat­ed a clear demand: defund the police. Under pres­sure from stu­dents, com­mu­ni­ties and teach­ers’ unions, schools have been at the fore­front of changes, by end­ing mil­lions of dol­lars worth of con­tracts between pub­lic schools and police departments.

In this strug­gle, teach­ers unions have been orga­niz­ing crit­i­cal sup­port for the move­ment, which is large­ly led by Black and Brown youth. Among them is the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, which has been orga­niz­ing ral­lies, mobi­liz­ing mem­bers, releas­ing state­ments of sol­i­dar­i­ty and con­tribut­ing to a vision for what police-free Chica­go schools could look like. In many cas­es, teach­ers are fol­low­ing the lead of their stu­dents, tak­ing to the streets because youth are demand­ing pro­found change. Fresh off of a 2019 strike in which the union placed social jus­tice demands front and cen­ter, CTU is show­cas­ing how to mobi­lize for the com­mon good dur­ing a time of social upheaval.

The demand to remove school resource offi­cers (SROs) is not new, and extends far beyond the CTU: It has been made by stu­dents, par­ents, teach­ers, com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions and civ­il rights advo­cates alike for years due to the pri­ma­ry role SROs play in fun­nel­ing stu­dents into a school-to-prison pipeline which over­whelm­ing­ly tar­gets Black stu­dents and stu­dents of col­or, often for non-crim­i­nal behav­ior. The ACLU found in a 2019 report that under Zero-tol­er­ance” poli­cies which crim­i­nal­ize minor infrac­tions of school rules,” Black stu­dents are sus­pend­ed or expelled three times more than white stu­dents and are near­ly three times more like­ly to be in con­tact with the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem the fol­low­ing year.” The ACLU report also found that, nation­wide, 14 mil­lion stu­dents are in schools with police but no coun­selor, nurse, psy­chol­o­gist, or social worker.”

#Cop­sOutCPS is a coali­tion of com­mu­ni­ty groups, includ­ing Assata’s Daugh­ters and Brighton Park Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil, fight­ing to dis­man­tle the school-to-prison pipeline. A new report from the coali­tion shows just how stark this real­i­ty is with­in Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS). Draw­ing on data from Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act requests to both CPS and the Chica­go Police Depart­ment (CPD), the report found that Black stu­dents are four times more like­ly to be tar­get­ed by police than white stu­dents. Over­all, 95% of police inci­dents in Chica­go schools involved stu­dents of col­or, the report finds.

Though the bulk of school-based police inci­dents is con­cen­trat­ed among stu­dents aged 15 to 18, stu­dents as young as six have been the tar­get of CPD action, accord­ing to the report. And Black women and girls (bina­ry lan­guage that the report acknowl­edges as insuf­fi­cient) expe­ri­ence school-based polic­ing sev­en times more than their white coun­ter­parts. The inves­ti­ga­tion reveals that a com­bined total of 2,354 mis­con­duct com­plaints had been filed against the 180 SROs and 21 School Liai­son Super­vi­sors work­ing through­out CPS. The report’s ulti­mate con­clu­sion: Polic­ing puts Black stu­dents and stu­dents of col­or in danger.”

Demands to remove school police –  – or in the case of Los Ange­les, which has its own inde­pen­dent police force –  – to dis­band school police units entire­ly, have gained new force amid the nation­wide upris­ing. Min­neapo­lis, Port­land, Den­ver and Char­lottesville, Va., have all sev­ered ties with police in under two weeks, with at least a dozen oth­er school dis­tricts fac­ing demands to do the same. In Chica­go, Seat­tle, Los Ange­les, Boston, Oak­land, Rich­mond, Calif., Taco­ma, Wash., Madi­son, Wisc., and Racine, Wisc., teach­ers unions have tak­en a proac­tive role in call­ing on their school boards to fol­low suit. This demand also reflects a demand from the Move­ment for Black Lives and #8toAbolition, a cam­paign that aims to build a soci­ety where police and pris­ons are not necessary.

Chica­go and Los Ange­les, where stu­dents of col­or make up around 90% of the stu­dent pop­u­la­tion in each school dis­trict, have been among the two most vocal cities in the fight to defund the police. The Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les (UTLA) both went on strike in 2019 when their con­tracts expired, and brought demands from the wider com­mu­ni­ty, like afford­able hous­ing and sup­port for immi­grant fam­i­lies, to their con­tract nego­ti­a­tions in an approach called bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good. While con­tracts are not cur­rent­ly up for nego­ti­a­tion, both unions are engag­ing in the same social jus­tice frame­work in mak­ing these demands with fel­low stu­dents, par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty organizations.

On June 4, rank-and-file CTU mem­bers joined a CPS com­mu­ni­ty protest to demand jus­tice for George Floyd and call for the city to defund the police. CTU Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey released a state­ment that same day call­ing on the city of Chica­go to fol­low the exam­ples set by oth­ers to ter­mi­nate the school district’s police con­tract and cut the city’s police bud­get more broad­ly. Stu­dents see them­selves and their friends in the des­per­ate pleas of George Floyd. They know that any one of them could be sub­ject to that kind of extra­ju­di­cial lynch­ing — even in their schools,” Sharkey said in the statement. 

CTU and a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ty groups orga­nized a car­a­van protest two days lat­er reaf­firm­ing these demands and call­ing on the city to invest mon­ey from the police bud­get into restora­tive prac­tices, social work­ers and stu­dent sup­port staff in schools.

It’s not defund the police in absence of every­thing else,” says Jenine Wehbeh who teach­es 7th and 8th grade social stud­ies in Chicago’s John B. Mur­phy Ele­men­tary School. It’s actu­al­ly invest­ing in the things that the com­mu­ni­ty needs and our school build­ings need in order to not need police, not need a mil­i­tary-lev­el of intervention.”

The har­row­ing absur­di­ty of send­ing armed police into under-fund­ed schools was the sub­ject of recent out­rage over a resur­faced 2014 L.A. Times report about how the city’s school police, which was receiv­ing mil­i­tary weapon­ry through a fed­er­al pro­gram to local law enforce­ment, would return three grenade launch­ers but intend[ed] to keep 61 rifles and a Mine Resis­tant Ambush Pro­tect­ed armored vehi­cle it received through the pro­gram.” With so many schools starved for resources, many unions have artic­u­lat­ed a con­sis­tent demand to direct­ly rein­vest the mon­ey cut from cities’ bloat­ed police bud­gets into nurs­es, coun­selors, social work­ers, and, in many cas­es, restora­tive jus­tice pro­grams for schools.

Before becom­ing a teacher, Wehbeh orga­nized around dis­man­tling the school-to-prison pipeline at the nation­al lev­el. In addi­tion to teach­ing social stud­ies she also runs the peer medi­a­tion pro­gram at her school, a restora­tive jus­tice tool where stu­dents are trained in a con­flict-res­o­lu­tion process that does not involve police. Part of CTU’s 2019 con­tract nego­ti­a­tion includ­ed fund­ing for 30 new posi­tions a year at CPS schools, most of which have opt­ed for restora­tive jus­tice coor­di­na­tors. With­in CTU, a safe­ty com­mit­tee con­sist­ing of rank-and-file mem­bers works with restora­tive jus­tice coach­es and train­ing staff, but with resources stretched thin, Wehbeh says many times the staff mem­bers engag­ing in restora­tive jus­tice prac­tices jug­gle mul­ti­ple roles as teach­ers or counselors.

In a city where near­ly 40% of the gen­er­al oper­at­ing bud­get is already divert­ed to police depart­ments, the school board approved of a $33 mil­lion con­tract last sum­mer — approx­i­mate­ly $90,000 a day — between CPS and the police depart­ment, a mea­sure that passed against the direct wish­es of CTU and many stu­dents and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers. The #Cop­sOutCPS report found that With those $33 mil­lion allot­ted to 180 SROs, CPS could replace police in schools with at least: 317 social work­ers, 314 school psy­chol­o­gists, or 322 nurses.”

Chicago’s Board of Edu­ca­tion is part of the 10% of school dis­tricts nation­wide that is appoint­ed by the may­or instead of elect­ed, a reform that May­or Lori Light­foot pledged dur­ing her cam­paign but has since walked back. Ear­li­er this month, Light­foot ruled out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of remov­ing police from CPS. But some in city gov­ern­ment dis­agree: The Social­ist Cau­cus of Chicago’s City Coun­cil is spon­sor­ing an ordi­nance that would ter­mi­nate the CPS’s $33 mil­lion police con­tract with the hopes that oth­er alder­men will sign on.

Mean­while, teach­ers’ unions across the coun­try are get­ting behind the grow­ing demand to get cops out of schools. In New York City, the Move­ment of Rank and File Edu­ca­tors (MORE), an out­spo­ken social jus­tice cau­cus made up of New York City teach­ers, has point­ed to CTU as a mod­el of lead­er­ship that its union, the Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, should fol­low. Police vio­lence against black and brown com­mu­ni­ties,” MORE wrote “[is] repro­duced in school build­ings where school safe­ty agents are man­aged by the NYPD and schools bud­gets are threat­ened by law and order’ fund­ing.” MORE and a num­ber of com­mu­ni­ty groups orga­nized a march to the union’s head­quar­ters to pres­sure them into sign­ing onto the demands for police-free schools.

Unit­ed Teach­ers of Rich­mond, an affil­i­ate of the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA), is propos­ing that the $1.5 mil­lion bud­get­ed for school police next year instead be tar­get­ed and rein­vest­ed in African Amer­i­can stu­dents. The Seat­tle Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, an affil­i­ate of the NEA, has passed a list of action items in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, which, in addi­tion to kick­ing our SROs, is call­ing for the removal of the Seat­tle Police Offi­cers Guild from their local labor coun­cil. Seat­tle, Los Ange­les, Chica­go and oth­er cities have ampli­fied demands in recent weeks to defund the police beyond schools.

In some cas­es, we are see­ing unions reverse their pre­vi­ous­ly held posi­tions. The union Madi­son Teach­ers Inc., an affil­i­ate of the NEA, recent­ly reversed its stance on SROs in schools and called for their com­plete removal once schools are prop­er­ly staffed with alter­na­tive sup­port sys­tems. The union released an Anti-Racism State­ment” which reads: Our edu­ca­tion­al sys­tems at the fed­er­al, state, and local lev­els are infect­ed with this stub­born strain of white suprema­cy and anti-black­ness. Madi­son Teach­ers Inc. is not immune to racism. As part of becom­ing a more anti-racist orga­ni­za­tion, we claim respon­si­bil­i­ty for the ways we have per­pet­u­at­ed racism in our time, in our spaces, and in our community.”

There’s still a sen­ti­ment in the com­mu­ni­ty that can’t quite wrap their head around it, “ says Jonathan Wil­son, a CTU mem­ber who teach­es 11th and 12th grade at Harp­er High School. He believes more pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion in the com­mu­ni­ty is need­ed around what an alter­na­tive to police in schools would look like. Alter­na­tives to the police that would actu­al­ly be address­ing the trau­ma that most of our stu­dents are fac­ing that often times push them to have behav­ioral issues,” he says. Wil­son came to teach­ing with a back­ground in com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing against issues like police bru­tal­i­ty and depor­ta­tions. I think the big thing that has to come out of this is pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion around these issues.”

In ampli­fy­ing demands and hold­ing con­ver­sa­tions around what an alter­na­tive to SROs in schools would look like, CTU have been engag­ing in a form of pop­u­lar edu­ca­tion. In ear­ly May, CTU part­nered with a local news net­work to broad­cast edu­ca­tion­al lessons for stu­dents every week­day from 11:00 a.m. to 1noon and has focused much of its recent pro­gram­ming on race, includ­ing Black Lives Mat­ter. On Fri­day, CTU orga­nized a vir­tu­al pan­el on Reimag­in­ing Pub­lic Safe­ty in Schools,” a vision that the union says it’s car­ried for years and has fought to real­ize through bar­gain­ing for greater resources in stu­dents and school resources.

The best way I can orga­nize is to be a teacher,” Wil­son says. I have a cap­tive audience.”

Indi­go Olivi­er is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fellow.

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