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School Resource Officers Won't Return To CPS Buildings This Year; LSCs May Opt For Alternatives Next Year

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Even though the local school councils for 55 Chicago Public Schools voted last summer to keep school resource officers this year, district officials said the officers won't return to school buildings this year.

Thousands of high school students at CPS returned to classrooms for the first time this week, and CPS officials said with lower in-person attendance for the fourth quarter, those officers aren't necessary for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.

"With less than two months remaining in the school year and reduced daily in-person attendance, we feel that the presence of full-time SROs is not necessary at this time. Please be assured that the safety of your children remains our top priority, and we are confident that your school has the necessary staff in place to safely support the limited number of students who have returned to learn in person," CPS Chief of Safety and Security Jadine Chou wrote in a letter to parents. "Additionally, we are working with the Chicago Police Department to ensure our school buildings receive attention from police officers in the neighborhood, particularly during high traffic times like dismissal. Your school principal has been notified of this change, and the CPS Student Safety Center is ready to support them with any additional needs."

Meantime, the district is working on what it calls a new "Whole School Safety Plans" for next school year, an effort to work with schools to develop their own safety plan, with alternatives to school resource officers if they wish.

The district said local school councils will still be able to bring back resource officers next year, or opt for an alternative.

"While schools will continue to have the option to participate in the SRO program next school year, we are taking a more holistic approach to school safety that is informed by a significant community engagement effort and guided by a new resolution passed by the Board of Education," Chou wrote.

That resolution calls for the district to develop alternative safety systems for every school, and come up with possible alternatives for SROs for every school by August.

CPS said it has been working with five community groups to develop a new approach to school safety, and is working with every school to develop a comprehensive plan for the 2021-22 school year.

A report last month by the district's "Whole School Safety Steering Committee" recommended schools implement "holistic restorative justice" plans led by students, parents, and community members; along with administrators and staff.

New training standards could include  peace rooms, peace circles, peer juries, deescalation training, and a new staff or volunteers trained in restorative justice practices to coordinate safety programs.

"Your principal will be working on a plan in advance of the new school year, and your LSC will vote on the approach this summer. Schools may opt to maintain their SROs, or they will be able to choose alternative resources," Chou wrote.

The report also recommended schools increase focus on social-emotional learning and mental health practices by increasing access to mental health professionals; prioritize physical repairs inside and outside the building to create a safer and better learning environment; invest in more student access to extracurricular programs; develop strategies for more meaningful engagement with parents and community members; and invest in increased and continuous training for designated behavioral intervention employees (such as Safe Passage workers, counselors, social workers, behavioral health teams, administrators, and security officers).

School resource officers have become a hot topic for CPS, as many activists have argued the presence of police officers in schools harms Black and Brown students, and perpetuates a "school-to-prison pipeline." Protesters have said there is a systemic problem of misconduct, abuse, and violence by school resource officers against Black and Brown students.

Last June, the Chicago Board of Education voted down a proposal to remove SROs from every school in the district. By a 4-3 vote, Mayor Lori Lightfoot's hand-picked board voted down a motion to terminate a $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department to provide more than 200 school resource officers and staff sergeants at 72 high schools.

Lightfoot has argued decisions on school resource officers should be left up to LSCs, and later last summer 17 local school councils voted to get rid of them.

CPS said LSCs will continue to have the option to vote on whether to use school resource officers next school year.

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