Three students urge ETHS board to remove police from campus (Dec. 13, 2021)

On Dec. 13, several people urged the Evanston Township High School Board of Education to remove armed and uniformed police officers from campus.

Three ETHS juniors told the board that the school resource officers, who are regularly assigned to the building, may create peace of mind for some.

But, student Claire Gover said, “for a significant portion of our campus, the presence of armed police officers can be anxiety-provoking and triggering.”

Dr. David Soglin, a pediatrician, stated that “there is no evidence that school violence is reduced or mitigated by the presence of school resource officers.”

And the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy, a social justice organization, submitted a 140-page report, that claimed, “When officers are employed in a full-time capacity on campus, they inevitably become involved in situations where their involvement is unwarranted and causes matters to escalate quickly and unnecessarily.”

Just three days later, ETHS was crawling with cops. Two loaded guns were discovered, the school was locked down for several hours, and three students were arrested, two of whom face weapons charges.

Police leaving the high school on Dec. 16, 2021, apparently carrying evidence from the gun incident. (Bill Smith photo)

Amy Averbuch could not help but notice the irony in the timing … a call to remove regular police presence from ETHS, followed by a highly dangerous incident in just three days.

Averbuch is with a parents group called “Evanston for Safe Schools.”

That organization is calling for the ETHS board to research the use of weapons detection systems, but Averbuch also told Evanston Now that school resource officers are “another tool to keep kids safe.”

Former ETHS board member Jonathan Baum said the reality is that genuinely dangerous incidents, even if rare, can happen at school.

“It’s the world we live in,” he said.

Baum said, “I get that the issue,” has two aspects. First, he said is “appearance,” that police on campus can be unsettling to some.

But the second aspect, Baum said, is “functional,” the reality that at times, it is helpful to have a police officer right there in school.

“The significance of the appearance aspect is overwhelmed by the functional aspect,” he said.

The stationing of school resource officers at ETHS is the result of an intergovernmental agreement between the school district and the city last updated in 2019.

On Friday, ETHS officials announced that the school is hiring an outside consultant, to review safety and security procedures, and make recommendations on ways to “deter, detect, delay, and respond to crisis situations.”

It’s likely that the use of school resource officers will be part of that review, as well as alternatives suggested by the Moran Center such as “restorative justice” (victim/perpetrator meetings and counseling) and more mental health services.

The issue of race relations may come up as well. Some of the argument against having school resource officers is the history of tension and abuse between police in general and Black citizens.

The topic is not new, in Evanston and around the nation, but it received new focus after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.

While that had nothing to do with school, the killing did increase public attention on police-community relations, including the use of SROs at ETHS.

At that time, Superintendent Eric Witherspoon said the SROs in Evanston “do not in any way bring systemic racism into the school and are an amazing asset.”

But the controversy still exists.

The Moran Center’s report, “Re-imagining School Safety,” says a total of 24 ETHS students were arrested on campus over four recent school years.

Forty-six percent of the arrests were for battery, 20% for trespass, 10% each for robbery/theft or disorderly conduct and 7% each were for aggravated assault or possession of a controlled substance.

So in a school with 3,700 students, on average only 1.6 in every 1,000 students were arrested each year. But the rate for Black students was roughly 4.9 per thousand, while the rate for other students was 0.54 per thousand.

Comparable figures for Chicago Public Schools indicate a similar racial disparity, with four of every thousand Black students arrested on campus in the 2019 school year, compared to 0.6 of every thousand Hispanic students and 0.4 of every thousand white students.

A report from the Evanston’s Youth and Young Adult Division indicates that over the past five years an average of 208 residents in the age range 14-24 were arrested in Evanston each year.

Given census estimates of the population in that age group in the city, that works out to an average of nearly 14 arrests per 1,000 people in that age bracket.

The Moran Center report claims the ETHS data “paints a troubling picture of how SROs directly contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline at ETHS.”

Evanston Now wanted to ask Moran Center officials about the numbers, but they refused to do an interview.

The head of the National Association of School Resource Officers, Mo Canaday, told Evanston Now that having an SRO who knows the campus and the students might actually lead to fewer arrests.

Without an SRO, he added, school authorities would have to call 911. The responding officers, he said, “do not have a relationship with the school, so arrests would go up.”

“Removing a good SRO opens the door to increased violence,” he said.

Canaday conceded that the school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida failed to do his job by not responding adequately to a mass shooter who killed 17 people in 2018.

However, Canaday said that is a rare exception, and that many SROs have prevented violent incidents from taking place.

He said that in communities such as Fremont, California, and Alexandria, Virginia, decisions to remove school resource officers were opposed by residents, and the officers were restored due to “parental pushback.”

The question of race also looms large in the SRO debate. Even though the two ETHS resource officers are Black, and they are praised by the Moran Center for their dedication.

In the Dec. 13 school board meeting, Vice President Monique Parsons said confronting the racial angle “is not easy. It hasn’t been comfortable. It’s probably one of the most uncomfortable conversations to have.”

“We don’t have all the information we need,” Parsons added.

That may be one reason why ETHS plans to hire the outside consultant.

The school did survey students and staff last spring about SROs, well before the December gun incident.

And despite the ongoing controversy over police in school, the survey found that most ETHS students (75% of the 2,566 who responded) had no interaction with SROs at all.

However, nearly eight times as many students said if they did have any interaction, it was positive (19.3%) versus negative (2.3%).

22.5% of respondents were Black, which roughly corresponds to the percentage of Black ETHS students.

The results showed that an overwhelming percentage of all students and employees felt an SRO would help protect them from an internal threat in school.

ETHS administrators did tell the board during the Dec. 13 meeting that there was some confusion among students over the difference between unarmed school security personnel and uniformed SROs.

Whatever the perception, the survey also found on a 0-100 scale, students did not believe it was particularly likely that there would be a “dangerous event at ETHS.” (0 = “very unlikely,” 100 = “very likely”). For staff, the response was 50. For students, 29.

Of course, that was before the gun incident.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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