The village of Oak Park and the District 200 school board have delayed extending an intergovernmental agreement that allows for a School Resource Officer (SRO) at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
The delay comes amid concerns among some students, community members, village officials and D200 officials about the presence of armed police officers at OPRF.
Those concerns came to a head last month, when a group of at least 30 students converged at Oak Park Village Hall on Feb. 26 and made a series of demands, among them was that the village put a stop to the SRO program.
Antoine Ford, the OPRF student-activist who helped organize the demonstration (the students had walked out of the high school earlier that day before marching to village hall), said that he and many of his peers “feel intimidated and criminalized” by the police presence.
The SRO program at OPRF has been in place since 1999, when the infamous mass shooting happened at a Columbine High School in Colorado. Since then local police departments across the country have deployed sworn police to double as resource officers inside schools in an effort to prevent future attacks and to keep students safe.
But critics of the program say that it’s been a double-edged sword. During an Oak Park village board meeting on Feb. 18, residents and some trustees expressed a range of concerns about the SRO program.
“I don’t believe that having armed police in our schools is a productive or even practical method for learning respect for the police,” said Oak Park activist Cate Readling.
Shobha Mahadev, a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University’s law school, said that she was deeply troubled by the presence of resource officers in schools.
“National think tanks and well-regarded organizations that study this issue, such as the Justice Policy Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Dignity in Schools Campaign agree that the presence of police or school officers is concerning from a safety perspective and with respect to the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels our young people from school to the criminal justice system.”
During board discussion about the resource officer program, Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla said she found some of the language in the agreement “deeply problematic.”
For instance, one section of the agreement states that the resource officer “in cooperation with School District administration, will make a reasonable effort to contact the student’s parent or guardian before any interview or interrogation.”
Walker-Peddakotla said the agreement does not explicitly state that a parent or guardian, or legal representative, must be present when the interview happens.
Other board members said the resource officer program should strike a balance between safety and respect for students.
Oak Park Police Chief LaDon Reynolds said during the meeting that having resource officers in the schools is an industry best practice. He said studies show that the presence of the officers in schools significantly reduces the response time to emergencies like school shootings.
“I think there is a lot of value in having a school resource officer present,” the chief said.
“I think it’s important to have a police presence,” said Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb. “We don’t want to end up in a situation where we wish we did something to protect a kid from not being safe.”
Abu-Taleb said he was in favor of D200 officials modifying the agreement, instead of getting rid of the program altogether.
Cara Pavlicek, Oak Park’s village manager, said village administrators already made some changes throughout the document, such as removing overly deferential language about respect for law enforcement that does not reflect the current national focus on community policing, which emphasizes mutual respect and trust between community members and the police.
“That’s old language and it’s not proper,” Pavlicek said, adding that there’s more work to do on improving the agreement.
The D200 school board also held a meeting on Feb. 18, where its members discussed the agreement, which doesn’t expire until next year. District administrators said it was appropriate to delay extending the agreement until making changes in the document that would ensure that the resource officer assigned to OPRF is appropriately trained in restorative justice practices.
“If we’re moving towards a school community and culture of warmth and restorative practices, what does the SRO presence mean in our building?” D200 board President Jackie Moore said at the school board meeting.
The existing agreement calls for the district to pay $155,153 to the village in compensation for the police department providing a School Resource Officer at OPRF. The final changes to the agreement are ultimately up to the school board, village officials said.