Evanston officials say they want to see more data from police and school officials before deciding whether to expand a safe school zone around Evanston Township High School beyond school property.
At a meeting Tuesday night of the City-School Liaison Committee, ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said extending the boundaries across the street would let the district prevent fights and other incidents among students and non-students at the end of the school day.
“Ninety-eight percent of the time our dismissals are fantastic,” Witherspoon said. “We’ve got good kids.”
“It’s that two percent of the time when something’s brewing and people know our ability to do what we’re doing ends at the curb.”
But some residents and the executive director of the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, Kathy Lyons, asked for a more specific definition of the problem.
Witherspoon said sometimes non-student outsiders gather across the street “in a very threatening manner because they are waiting for somebody or somebodies in particular.”
“We many times know they are gang affiliated. It doesn’t happen everyday. It doesn’t happen hardly at all. Right now the problem we have is the kids have no space to move and get away, no space to get on the bus and get out of there,” he said. “We’re not making up that we think there is a threat. We have students who come to us or text us and say they’re scared to death.”
Witherspoon said, at the moment, school officials have no authority to ask people to move away from the area if they’re standing outside the borders of school property.
When asked what the school does if a student comes to staff with a potentially threatening situation on their hands, Witherspoon said they try to get the student home before the usual dismissal time. But the issue, he said, is that sometime they do not know about a situation in advance, and only recognize something is wrong as it is developing.
Betty Ester, who lives at 2031 Church St., across from the school, said the city already has the tools — police officer — to deal with those kind of situations.
But ETHS Board Member Scott Rochelle responded, “We’re trying to prevent the ruckus from even starting. Once it starts it can get out of control very quickly.”
Ester and another area resident, Albert Gibbs, said extending the zone may result in unfairly targeting African Americans walking on the sidewalks near ETHS.
Critics have argued that the state statute authorizing the expansion of school control to nearby property gives almost unlimited discretion to school administrators to order anyone to leave the sidewalk across the street from the school or face arrest.
“I think you’re overreaching,” Gibbs said. “I think there are some additional dangers that are going to happen here if you are allowed this extra space.”
Extending the safe school zone “is not going to solve anything,” Ester said in an interview after the meeting.
She said a better solution to the problem would be to educate the students and “tell them if somebody is coming after you, you talk to the principal, talk to the counselor and we can get you out of the school safely. That is a preventative measure.”
At Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl’s suggestion, the committee agreed to gather information about past incidents, and ones that may occur over the next few months from high school staff and police.
One committee member, Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said the next step would be to form a small group that would discuss what implementation of the proposed measure would look like, and then report the findings to the public.
ETHS officials had hoped the expanded safe zone would be in effect in time for the start of school last month, but that goal was shelved after some residents objected at a City Council meeting where the plan was scheduled to be approved.
Viewpoint: Fixing the ‘safe school zone’ (Aug. 16, 2013)
No ‘safe zone’ for ETHS opening (Aug. 14, 2013)
Neighbors question ‘Safe School Zone’ plan (Aug. 6, 2013)
‘Safe Zone’ to be widened around ETHS (June 26, 2013)