Parents and students gathered at Chicago Public Schools headquarters Monday to demand that the school system use proposed federal funding as part of President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence for counselors instead of adding armed police officers.
The overuse of school police has resulted in 2,546 school-based arrests in the first five months of last school year, an average of 25 students per day, according to a press release from Voices Of Youth in Chicago Education, which helped organize the event.
“The White House recommendations are an opportunity for Chicago to take the necessary steps to reduce arrests for minor infractions,” said Katya Mazon, 16, a CPS student who spoke at the press conference on behalf of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance. “After all, 82 percent of all these arrests are misdemeanors … As President Obama said, we need to work on making access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun.”
Under Obama’s proposal, the White House recommends additional Department of Justice funding for school police and the 2014 federal budget include $150 million for states and local school districts to hire counselors, psychologists, armed police and guards and surveillance equipment. However, students and parents are demanding the new funds go toward staff and interventions only.
“CPS schools already have a huge problem with arresting kids for very minor infractions and sending them to jail instead of focusing on how to make schools safer in general,” said Shannon Sullivan, executive director of ISSA, which also helped organize the press conference.
ISSA’s mission is to promote safety and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth in Illinois schools and communities.
Sullivan shared a story after the press conference that particularly stood out to her as an incident when a school poorly handled the harassment of a gay student and an example of the misuse of discipline.
“A student had been relentlessly targeted by other students around sexual orientation,” she said. “It was reported to school leaders repeatedly and they did nothing. The student thought his safety was in danger and he brought mace to school and he was expelled. Had the school actively addressed the bullying situation and ensured safety for that student, the student would never have been expelled.”
Mauro Ortega, 16, a CPS student who identifies as LGBT and is a member of VOYCE, spoke after the press conference about his own experience with bullying and unfair discipline.
“Back when I was younger, I used to be bullied a lot by certain students and this continued for about two years and I’d always tell the teacher, ‘He’s bothering me, he’s picking on me,’” he said. “The teachers talked to him and his mother but he still wouldn’t stop and so it came to a day when I was in a class … and we were in woodworking together and we were partners. He was picking on me and he hit me on the head with a piece of plywood and it snapped and I told him to stop and he started pushing me and we got into an altercation.”
“I think [being an LGBT student] was a really big motivation of it,” he added. However, Ortega was arrested even after he tried to explain what had happened.
“Some teachers notice, and they take action, some don’t notice until you ask them for help, but I think it was around a 75% percent chance that … I was being helped,” he said.
Emma Tai, coordinator of VOYCE, which is led by students of color to reform issues and policies relating to education, said that the organization does not view students in terms of just being black or just being gay.
“I don’t think it’s very helpful to think about it as, ‘if we only talk about students of color we’re not talking about LGBTQ students’ because the reality is that the students of color we work with, a lot of them are LGBTQ,” she said after the conference. “This is an issue that disproportionately impacts at the intersection of those identities, so I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about them as being in conflict with each other.”
“The whole reason we work on this issue is because there are so many brilliant amazing young people who are getting suspended and arrested or fined and pushed out of school and it’s not right,” she added.
Felipa Mena, co-chair of POWER-PAC (Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew—Policy Action Council) spoke during the conference about her son who died in 2009 as a result of street violence and had attended a school that did little to curb the violence going on.
“I am here as a mother to say that more police is not the solution for true safety in our schools,” she said. “True peace in our schools is the fruit of partnership between parents, community and school staff looking for every way to better support our students.”
Mazon, who identifies as an ally, said she believes LGBT students are just as affected by violence and the unfair use of school police.
“I think the minorities are the ones who are being affected, so Hispanics, African-Americans, and LGTBQ students fall into the category,” she said shortly after the press conference. “I haven’t spoken at something like this before, but I am going to keep going with this and if this doesn’t work, then we’ll hold another press conference, and if that doesn’t work then I’ll send a letter to the mayor, and if that doesn’t work then I’ll have a petition. I’m going to keep going with this and it’s going to happen.”