The halls of Oak Park and River Forest High School are seen Wednesday, July 8, 2021, in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Four security guards, backed by 10 of their coworkers standing up alongside them, addressed the Oak Park and River Forest High School board of education Oct. 27 and voiced concerns about the stress of their jobs and suggested they are not getting enough support from OPRF’s administration. They also asked for a three dollar an hour raise.

Union stewards Anissa Molette and Jeremy Powell said their jobs are more stressful than ever. They said that the campus safety and support team, as the security guards are officially called, is asked to do more and more.

“The number of physical altercations are increasing and even though we are short staffed even at full capacity, and even though we no longer have an SRO (school resource officer), we have managed to get to the fights in a timely manner,” said Molette, speaking before a large fight inside the school resulted in the entire school being put on a soft lockdown for nearly an hour on Nov. 1.

We are struggling mentally and financially. The cost of living is steadily increasing.”

Anissa molette, union steward

Molette told the school board the job has become tougher since students returned to the school after remote learning during the pandemic.

“After two years they didn’t return the same,” Molette said. “We did a lot more deescalating, coddling, hand holding, to say the least we became more of a support staff than a safety staff. We lost focus on what we are actually here in the building to do.”

Molette said some students don’t treat the security guards with respect and some of her coworkers are quitting.

“We’ve been dealing with verbal and physical abuse from the students, lack of support and a lack of growth in our department,” Molette said. “Because of that we have lost, and will continue to lose, great, dependable, seasoned officers.”

Security officers have had to occasionally monitor classrooms because of a shortage of substitute teachers.

Powell said the job has changed since he started at OPRF years ago.

“We are not just security anymore,” Powell said. “We are counselors, we are mentors, we are father figures, mother figures, sisters, aunties, however you want to look at that.”

On Nov. 4 OPRF sent an email to parents addressing rumors about the Nov. 1 fight.

“First, only OPRFHS students were involved in the altercation,” wrote Karin Sullivan the school’s communications director. “Outsiders did not access the building nor participate in the fight.

“Second, there were no weapons involved — no guns, knives, or other weapons of any kind.

“We take any threats to school safety, including this incident, extremely seriously. As we stated previously, physical violence is not an acceptable way of handling conflict and has no place in our school.  All 10 students who were directly involved are receiving consequences in alignment with our Behavior Education Plan.”

Sullivan said there have been seven fights at OPRF since the school year began in August.

OPRF has been stressing restorative justice and has moved away from zero tolerance policies and, like many schools these days, rarely gives out suspensions. It has been shifting from harsh consequences for small infractions. School officials and many community members are concerned about Black students being disciplined more often than white students and entering what is called the school to prison pipeline.

In a presentation before the school board at the Oct. 27 meeting Janel Bishop, director of Employment Relations and Recruitment, who served for many years as a dean at OPRF, said OPRF students of color are overrepresented in the school’s discipline figures relative to their percentage of enrollment. Bishop also said students of color fight more at school then other students.

“Our students of color are fighting more than other students,” Bishop told the school board.

Board member Gina Harris praised the moves the school has made around discipline and trying to be a welcoming place for all students. She said it is a misnomer that restorative justice means that there are no consequences for bad behavior.

The security guards, who are members of SEIU Local 73, are currently in the middle of a five-year contract that doesn’t expire until 2024. As of the start of the contract in 2019 the starting wage for a security guard at OPRF was $19 an hour. OPRF currently has 33 Campus Safety officers, 48 percent of whom who identify as Black according to Sullivan.

Molette said they need a raise to compensate them for the added stress of the job, to retain employees and to keep pace with inflation.

“We are struggling mentally and financially,” Molette said. “The cost of living is steadily increasing.”

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