AUSTIN — A nonprofit whose leaders took issue with Chicago Public Schools’ background check mandate has been booted from operating out of an Austin school.
Jane Addams Resource Corporation was the first of three nonprofits to be evicted in August from the Austin College and Career Academy, 231 N. Pine Ave. Friends of the Children and Manufacturing Connect had their leases terminated shortly after, Austin Weekly News first reported.
The nonprofits previously were leasing space and operating programs out of the school before CPS officials said the lease agreements did not comply with new policies. Jane Addams Resource Corporation launched a manufacturing training program at the school with Austin Coming Together and Manufacturing Connect in 2017. The program, modeled after one that had success at their Ravenswood headquarters, 4432 N. Ravenswood Ave., sought to bring job training and supportive services “to disadvantaged job seekers in a low-income community of color.”
Now, leaders at Jane Addams Resource Corporation have penned an open letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot arguing that the CPS background check policy, one which the group won’t comply with, would prevent people from accessing their programs.
Jane Addams Resource Corporation leaders said the group can’t comply with background check requirements because it aims to serve people who face barriers to entering the workforce, including people with criminal convictions.
CPS officials said they only recently discovered that the program was operating out of the school afterhours, arguing that the lease agreement was not valid because it wasn’t approved by the district.
CPS requires a background check of each program participant to keep people who have been convicted of certain types of crimes off school grounds. The district buckled down on background checks last year after the Chicago Tribune found the district failed to protect 500 students who were sexual abused by CPS employees or other adults at the school.
“The safety of our students is the district’s highest priority and we will not allow organizations who refuse to follow our safety protocols and processes to operate in our school buildings,” CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said.
The Jane Addams Resource Corporation was given an opportunity to continue operating at the school if it complied with the district’s background check policy, Bolton said. The types of criminal convictions that would exclude people from participating in the program if it continued to be housed at the Austin school would include people convicted of sexual violence, Class X felonies, sex work and some drug crimes, Bolton confirmed.
Jane Addams Resource Corporation President Guy Loudon said that the wide range of offenses included in CPS’ policy would exclude the majority of the program’s participants and close their door to a huge portion of Austin’s population, one that has suffered from over policing and mass incarceration.
“For us, this is absolutely a matter of racial equity,” Loudon said.
The open letter to Lightfoot said that two-thirds of inmates in Cook County Jail are black. Austin also experiences the highest conviction rate in the city, with 131 convictions per 1,000 residents, the letter said.
Loudon said the group would be willing to submit participants to a background check to ensure they had not been convicted of sexual abuse or violence. But the group is not willing to screen out participants who have been convicted of a drug offense, he said.
“Black and Latino youth in particular are overwhelmingly more likely to be arrested and convicted and incarcerated for drug offense,” Loudon said.
After the workforce development program was evicted from the Austin school, Jane Addams Resource Corporation redirected participants to the program at its Ravenswood headquarters. The group is covering the cost of transportation for West Side participants for now.
The nonprofit has plans to set up a new shop in Austin, too, at a manufacturing space that is willing to stage the program for several years.
Jane Addams Resource Corporation leaders also have a longterm goal of housing the West Side program at the old Emmett Elementary School, which was shuttered in 2014 and is slated to be transformed into a community center focused on workforce development. The nonprofit is a lead partner in developing the center.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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