The intersection of school safety and equity concerns around policing are front and center as public school districts in Oak Park and the village’s police force work toward an intergovernmental agreement that would codify protocols and interactions between the three agencies.
The Village of Oak Park is in discussions with Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 to do just that. Through an intergovernmental agreement, the three entities plan to implement a school security program that would not see the return of school resource officers within the schools but would involve police interacting with students under certain circumstances.
To do so without causing undue harm and stress to Black and Brown students, who often feel wary in the presence of police, the three taxing bodies have committed to using a racial equity lens in development of the IGA.
The agreement is a two-fold initiative to ensure safety within the two districts’ schools while “explicitly disrupting the school to prison pipeline,” according to a Sept. 30 memo from Village Manager Kevin Jackson, D97 Superintendent Ushma Shah and D200 Superintendent Greg Johnson to the two school boards and the village board. It is meant to establish clear channels of communication between schools and law enforcement.
Key parts of the IGA include the two districts providing the police chief with a list of administrators and their phone numbers, as well as a list that identifies particular types of instances in which particular administrators should be contacted.
The police chief will then provide the two districts with the names and titles of primary contacts, as well as two back-up contacts, responsible for implementing the IGA on the police department’s behalf.
The police chief will also select at least one representative from the department’s threat assessment team to serve on each of the district’s threat assessment teams, as stipulated by the state’s School Safety Drill Act.
The IGA is a collaborative effort by Jackson, Shah and Johnson and is being referred to as “Oak Park’s tri-agency effort to balance community calls for school safety and racial equity.” The school security program extends from kindergarteners to high school seniors. The three top administrative officials declined to be interviewed until further details of the IGA are ironed out and presented to their respective boards.
“There is a need to restore relationships between our agencies,” the memo reads. “We believe this can be accomplished by evolving our notion of what it means to work together to ensure safety and racial equity at the same time.”
Jackson, Shah and Johnson presented the draft IGA to each of the three taxing bodies’ governing boards. The first was at D97 on Oct. 11. The D200 school board had their turn two days later and the village board on Oct. 17. Interim Oak Park Police Chief Shatonya Johnson also attended the meetings. The village’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Danielle Walker, who assisted in developing the IGA was not present at the meetings.
As it was presented to the village board, much of the agreement was based on procedures already in use between the three taxing bodies. The agreement, according to the village manager, serves to flesh out those procedures and codify them. The formation of a parent-teacher advisory committee is expected to help inform how the IGA takes shape.
None of the elected boards were outright critical or against putting in place such a security agreement, but the two school district boards had more feedback to share, given their direct responsibility to students. The resounding response given by each was widely the same: Clarity is needed. Clarity over procedures, data collection, training and even terminology used in the IGA, including what constitutes weapons and criminal acts.
Noting that the school resource officer program was terminated, D200 board members shared concerns at their initial meeting about the return of police officers to OPRF and how police would interact with students. Those views were echoed by D97 board members, who believed officers should take into consideration the age of the children during interactions with them – a 17-year-old would respond differently to an officer than a 7-year-old.
As the IGA currently stands, officers have the authority to conduct searches of students and their property when there is reasonable ground that conducting such a search would produce evidence of lawbreaking. This search does not have to be conducted in the presence of a parent or guardian, just in the presence of a school administrator or adult witness and by a certified employee or officer of the same sex as the student.
While “reasonable efforts” must also be made to have a parent or guardian present while a student is questioned by police, officers can still question a student in the absence of a parent or guardian. A school social worker, guidance counselor, school psychologist or school nurse would sit in on the questioning in lieu of a parent.
These two parts of the IGA were scrutinized by the school districts as well, with D200 board members noting that students of color tend to be the subject of more searches than their white counterparts, while D97 board member Holly Spurlock felt uncomfortable with student questioning going forward without a parent present. It was also requested that civil rights and disability rights experts weigh in on the agreement.
Spurlock, who is also a lawyer, shared her trepidation over police keeping records from elementary school children that could be subject to subpoena requests in the future and potentially used against them. D97 board member Nancy Ross Dribin likewise wanted a set standard for reporting, so that report style and quality would not vary from school to school, thereby limiting confusion.
While River Forest government is not a part of the agreement, a portion of D200 students live in that village. As a courtesy to their parents, it was requested that the River Forest village board be made aware of the potential IGA.
Clarification on the many points raised by the two districts must come quickly, as the IGA is set to return to D97 Nov. 15, to D200 Nov. 17 and finally to the village board Nov. 21. All three boards are set to vote on the approval of the IGA on those dates.