CHICAGO — As Chicago Public Schools and the police department develop a framework for officers operating in schools, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office is proposing a diversion program, in which school officers could refer students to a social service agency for support, instead of arresting them.
This week Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, juvenile policy adviser for the state’s attorney’s office, presented the idea to the school district, the police department, and the city’s department of family services. She hopes that these groups will soon sign an agreement to run the diversion program collaboratively.
“The school environment should be a place where our young people develop and learn, and not where they acquire a criminal record unnecessarily,” said Mbekeani-Wiley, who said that in-school arrests in the affluent Chicago suburb where she grew up were rare. “This diversion program addresses behavioral issues without the collateral consequences of having an arrest on your record.”
High school junior Arianna Collins sees the school discipline system as frustratingly obtuse.
Her school, the selective-enrollment Westinghouse College Prep on Chicago’s West Side, has among the lowest rates of suspension in the district. But Collins said she still sees classmates disciplined for fighting or drug use when there could be a deeper issues at play.
Collins wants school officials to look for the root causes of the misbehavior, rather than rushing to punish students.
“I don’t feel like people get into fights just because. There is always a bigger thing than the issue at hand,” she said. Schools “should be addressing those issues and talking to students about it instead of dismissing them and giving them a consequence.”
Chicago’s diversion program would be modeled on another such program in Philadelphia that officers say decreased student arrests by 71% in its first four years, to 456 arrests, down from 1,580.
Under that program, a police officer responding to a school discipline report could direct a student to a social worker, who would visit their home within 48 hours and check in on the student over the next three months. However, students with a prior criminal conviction could still be arrested and charged.
Kevin Bethel, the former deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department who oversaw school patrols and school security officers, said that social workers were directed explicitly to avoid punitive responses, like removing kids from their homes, and to consider what services could help students.
“The social workers are there to get in and see what are the overarching needs in the home,” Bethel said.
In Philadelphia, officers aren’t based inside schools, while in Chicago many schools have officers posted on campus — increasing the chances that a police officer will be the first line of response for a school incident.
Right now, the top three arrests from Chicago schools are for battery, aggravated battery and reckless conduct, a broad charge that Mbekeani-Wiley says could encompass a range of infractions, most of them misdemeanors. Under Foxx, who was elected in 2016 on a platform of decreasing prosecutions for low-level arrests and reducing overcrowding at the jail, the Cook County prosecutor’s office has filed the lowest number of school-related cases in the past decade.
The program could also put more pressure on Chicago’s department of family services. If that happens, Mbekeani-Wiley said she would help push for more social services funding.
The goal of a diversion program, she said, is to understand why students might act out in the first place.
Many Chicago schools already run restorative justice programs,which seek to solve disputes through conversation, and a special Cook County court offers juvenile offenders restorative justice solutions and mediation in lieu of jail time.
Still many students in Chicago get routed into the criminal justice system over an issue with its roots in larger social issues, like poverty and trauma, says Mbekeani-Wiley. “What does accountability look like for children that is effective? It’s often not a criminal record, but trying to get to the root cause,” she said.
When Bethel considers the impact of Philadelphia’s police diversion program, he thinks of changing the trajectory for the high number of female students carrying mace, who were being charged with bringing a weapon to school.
“We never ask them why, though we know they live in tough communities,” said Bethel, who hopes linking alleged offenders with services could help them avoid jail time. “I didn’t become a cop to lock up children. For me, it was just wrong.”