This Chalkbeat story was produced in partnership with Block Club Chicago, a nonprofit news site covering city neighborhoods.
CHICAGO — George Washington High School on Chicago’s Southeast Side has held four different meetings in the last month to discuss whether to keep its police officers on campus. During each meeting, student Trinity Colon has been inundated with questions.
Friends, acquaintances, and community members have reached out to Colon, the student representative on the local school council, on Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter to find out when the meetings will take place, how to find the link to access the livestream, and what’s on each agenda.
“Students are not getting the information as well as they can be — it’s not transparent,” said Colon, a first-year student rep. Her school will vote whether to keep or remove school resource officers on Aug. 12.
After a Chalkbeat Chicago and Block Club investigation found that multiple councils did not follow transparency rules around their police votes, including failing to post an agenda or meeting information so that the public could log in, Chicago Public Schools pledged to centrally track basic meeting information. But some parents and community members say that effort doesn’t go far enough, because the district is only tracking dates and not collecting meeting times, agendas or links to virtual meetings that are essential to public participation.
District officials, who have resisted calls for the wholesale removal of police officers from schools, have given each local school council until Aug. 14 to make a decision. They say that they recognize problems with transparency, but that the onus remains on the individual councils to follow the rules.
“Schools who do not post meeting information online are not following best practices for transparency and district guidance,” said Emily Bolton, a Chicago Public Schools spokesperson. “Centralizing meeting links and times, for which there is variability and regular updates, does not solve the underlying concern.”
The recent issues with transparency illustrate how much the councils operate outside of the school district’s purview, an issue that has long been a source of frustration for some parents and members of community organizations who see the councils as a critical link between neighborhoods and schools.
The district improved its process last month when it made the names of schools with police officers, and the dates they would vote, available for the first time on a district website. But that list stopped short of centrally listing all of the information that parents or community members would need to access the meeting, including meetings times or virtual meetings links. And on Tuesday, days after a new website redesign, the original link that housed the list gave an error message. (The list can now be found at this new link.)
The district also said that it advised council officials to use Google Meets to accommodate up to 250 participants after some community members were locked out of meetings.
Now, with less than two weeks left before the deadline, the district suggested that anyone with concerns should reach out to the Office of Local School Council Relations at Lscrelations@cps.edu to speak with their facilitators. Concerns about Open Meeting Act violations can be filed with the Illinois Office of the Attorney General.
But longtime Chicago organizers say those avenues don’t do enough to immediately address their concerns, with a handful of meetings taking place every day until Aug. 14. By that time, more than 70 schools will have decided whether to keep or remove the officers.
“School by school, LSC by LSC, LSC chairman by LSC chairman, you are super dependent on the culture of the LSC at your school and whether there is someone running it who knows the law,” said Cassandra Creswell with the parent advocacy group IL Families for Public Schools.
Creswell, whose child is an incoming freshman at Jones College Prep downtown, said she has not yet been able to see the video of recent meetings about school police or obtain chat logs for the public meetings that took place last month.
Local school councils were given the power to vote on officers last summer. The votes became closely watched this year in response to a growing youth-led movement in Chicago calling for an end to school police programs. That effort has been buoyed by similar decisions in other cities spurred by nationwide protests demanding an end to police violence against Black people.
With virtual-only meetings this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Chicago Public Schools asked councils to post their agendas on school websites 48 hours in advance of a meeting. If a school didn’t have a website, the school was required to post information on social media.
Last month, when 16 councils held meetings, Chalkbeat Chicago and Block Club Chicago found that in some cases councils failed to post meetings publicly or follow other rules that allow parents and community members to participate. Others tried to limit media access or public discussion.
The district asked each school to submit their meeting dates and called individual schools in an effort to update the list daily, the spokesperson said. But in many cases, that didn’t happen, even after the increased attention on council transparency. Meeting dates changed last minute or the district wasn’t always given accurate information and had to update the dates on their central sheet.
At a high school on the Northwest Side, the link was still not posted publicly on the website 24 hours before the meeting. In several other instances, the link only became available on the school’s website the day of the meeting or, in some cases, not at all. Several schools also asked participants to register in advance.
Observers at ongoing meetings say even when they’re able to get the information to attend, they ask questions that the moderator doesn’t answer or struggle to get recordings of the meetings later. In some cases, participants and journalists have come up against virtual meeting size limits or not been allowed into meetings.
Critics of the process say it underscores long-standing issues. For years, they say they’ve struggled under inconsistent training and little community involvement.
That has left councils without enough training, and often not following transparency rules, at the center of the closely watched and high-stakes decision on school police.
“LSCs have been disempowered for so long, now that people are trying to engage it’s not coming out as community voice,” says Natasha Erskine, a parent organizer with Raise Your Hand.
As of Monday, 21 schools had voted about whether to keep police officers, with only four voting to remove them, according to the district website. This week alone, thirteen meetings are scheduled.
Looking ahead, the district said it will focus on implementing new accountability and transparency measures for local school councils, who are expected to have a round of elections in November, but did not specify what those changes would look like.
The district says they will continue urging councils to follow the rules, a spokesperson said. “The district has also advised LSCs to make efforts to both raise awareness about upcoming meetings and ensure that information is available and readily accessible.”