Taft LSC votes to retain police officers, seeks ‘common ground’
by BRIAN NADIG
The Taft High School Local School Council at its July 28 meeting voted unanimously to retain police officers at the school.
LSC parent member Chris Raguso said prior to the vote that if the school resource officers are retained, the school should “create opportunities” to address the concerns of any student who does not feel comfortable around the officers. “It’s about healing, it’s about bridging, and its about common ground,” she said after the vote.
The council plans to add the topic of SROs as a regular item on its monthly agenda so that the role of the police officers can be periodically reviewed.
LSC community member Goran Davidovac said that “it’s a different conversation we’re having” if the school system would guarantee that the removal of police officers would result in more counselors at the school.
“I know three of the four SROs, and I’m happy to have them at Taft,” LSC teacher representative Marianne Villaseñor said. She added that “my three Brown children” attended Taft and had no problem having police officers at the school.
At previous meetings, school administrators have described the officers assigned to Taft as walking the hallways and getting along with the students, which they said was not always the case five to 10 years ago.
Taft principal Mark Grishaber said at the July 28 meeting that there was “a disconnect with security here” when he arrived at Taft and that at that time he probably would have voted to remove the officers. “(However), now we’re a Level 1 school five years in a row, and a lot has changed with our security,” he said. “I have not had one complaint on the SROs …in the last two years.”
Grishaber said that he wants Taft to be “a model school” in terms of how SROs and students interact, describing an incident in which the officers built “a positive relationship” with a student who had made an insulting sound toward them.
LSC Kathy Fern said that no matter how the council voted at the meeting, it can revisit the issue during the school year and revote on the SROs.
“We are starting the discussion for the 2020-21 school year, … and I remind you, this is a COVID school year, and it may be a moot point,” LSC parent member Laura Keeling said. “I think this is only the beginning of a conversation.”
“When we come back to school, we can have dialogue (with the students), .. and we can build that bridge,” Grishaber said.
The council held a community forum at its July 21 meeting in which about 20 people, including parents, teachers and students, gave public testimony on the issue. The LSC did not take additional public testimony prior to its vote, but the council received about 200 e-mail messages on the SRO issue, according to Fern.
“I’ve been reading and reading all the e-mails I got …, and I greatly appreciate that,” Keeling said.
Fern said that the “amount of pressure” on the council regarding the SRO issue has been “truly crushing from all sides.”
Fern said that the SRO issue should not have been left up to the councils given that “this matter is more of a staffing issue than a budgetary issue.” She added that the council normally has no input on staffing issues and that the police officers are not being funded out of Taft’s budget.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said LSCs should make the final determination on whether to have police officers. Last year no councils reportedly voted to remove their officers.
The school recently conducted an e-mail survey of parents (239 responses), students (129 responses) and staff members (179 responses), and the following results were reported: 91.2 percent of parents voted to keep the police officers at Taft and 8.8 percent for removing the officers; 65.9 percent of students supported keeping the officers and 34.1 percent for removing the officers; and 69.3 percent of staff members voted for keeping the officers and 30.7 percent supported their removal.
Taft, whose enrollment is about 3,800, has a varsity campus, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., and a freshman campus, 4071 N. Oak Park Ave., and two officers last year were assigned to each campus. The school also has a total of 14.5 security guard positions.
According to school administrators, in the last two years there are no more than a couple of arrests a month at Taft and that the number of arrests has declined as students are no longer being arrested for minor marijuana possession, instead receiving a citation.
Taft has one counselor for every 400 students and one full-time and one part-time social worker for the entire school.
At the LSC’s July 21 meeting, the following is some of the public comments which the council heard on the SRO issue:
Student Layan Nazzal said that the officers should be removed not because of a specific problem at Taft but because of the “systematic racism” which the presence of officers at schools represents. “It’s a bigger problem, (and) it’s a school to prison pipeline.”
Taft 2020 graduate Tri Ho said that Black students are being “racially profiled” and that in the latest data available for Taft, Black students made up about 25 percent of the arrests a few years ago even though they represented slightly more than 2 percent of the school’s enrollment. He added that 629 people have signed an online petition calling for the removal of the SROs at Taft.
Taft parent and retired police detective Gary Wager said that the role of SROs should to be minimized. He said that SROs have an advantage over a random officer who may respond to a 911 call because they “know the students involved (and) can neutralize the situation before it escalates.”
Parent Dan Pan said that there are plenty of examples of police officers helping people who were “going in the wrong direction, go in the right direction.” He added, “I promise those officers exist, and they are in abundance.”
Teacher Bryan Wilson, who supports the removal of the SROs, said that the school’s enrollment is becoming more diverse, and “we need to make sure we keep a welcoming environment.” Taft’s racial makeup consists of about 46 percent White students and 54 minority students, including 40 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 3 percent Black.
Teacher Jeff Lucco said that the “police do not represent safety “ for all people and that the school should continue to focus on its current policy of restorative practices, which stresses problem solving over punishment in terms of student discipline.
In June, the Chicago Board of Education narrowly voted not to terminate its $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department to provide two officers at 72 high schools. There have been protests nationwide calling for officers to be replaced at schools with more counselors, social workers and nurses.