BUILD promotes safety in the community using trusted relationships to intervene before violence happens.

AUSTIN — A neighborhood group with decades of experience preventing violence on the West Side is helping Chicago Public Schools find ways to keep schools safe without relying on police.

Austin-based violence prevention group BUILD Chicago will be on the steering committee leading the district’s efforts to create trauma-informed safety practices that could serve as alternatives to the school resource officer program. The alternative safety programs will be developed with community input gathered during engagement events in February.  

BUILD is among four other neighborhood organizations on the committee: the Ark of St. Sabina, Mikva Challenge, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and COFI.

District officials were criticized last year for choosing not to end CPS’ contract with Chicago police, which has school resource officers at 55 schools. Student and teacher advocates say schools are no place for police, as the presence of officers fuels the school-to-prison pipeline and traumatizes Black students, who are most likely to be disciplined or even arrested by officers for small infractions.

The debate over on-campus cops came to a head after January 2019, when two school resource officers were shown on video assaulting a 16-year-old student at Marshall High School. Officers dragged the student down a flight of stairs and used a Taser on her three times. The video received national attention.

The student allegedly disobeyed a teacher who told her to put her phone away and was kicked out of class before staff called officers. The teen was charged with aggravated battery against the officers, but the charges were later dropped.

“When young people have conflicts with each other or conflicts with teachers or conflicts within school, we know that there’s sometimes a deeper issue there,” said Juan Villalobos, director of community engagement at BUILD.

With a “whole school” approach to safety, everybody in the learning community is involved in keeping students physically and emotionally safe, including teachers, counselors, janitors and support staff, Villalobos said.

“That means emotional support. That means trauma-informed support. That means finding better solutions to resolving conflict,” he said.

The trauma-informed alternatives to cops, known as the Whole School Safety Programs, will be built from community input collected by BUILD and other partners.

Parents, teachers, students and school staff will be able to share their ideas for keeping schools safe at focus groups that will be held through the end of February. Residents can sign up to participate in the focus groups on the CPS website.

The steering committee will share community feedback with CPS for consideration. Local school councils for each of the 55 schools that have an on-campus officer can incorporate the Whole School Safety Program strategies into their safety plans as the district prepares its annual budget.

“The end goal is to make system-wide changes that stop the criminalization of students,” said Verneé Green, Mikva Challenge Illinois executive director. “Students deserve safe spaces in which to learn and grow, and it is crucial to engage and listen to student and community voices to improve student safety in schools.”

The engagement process is not aimed at pressuring school communities into getting rid of on-campus officers, said Jamey Makowski, BUILD’s director of core programs.

Instead, the safety recommendations will empower school communities with a much broader set of tools for preventing violence by “providing them with as many options as possible for how to handle their safety,” she said.

Safety recommendations that could come out of the series of focus groups could include a shift toward restorative justice practices and greater investment in mental health resources, Makowski said. To be effective in mediating conflict, those resources must be embedded into every aspect of the school, rather than just a single project, she said.

The changes can’t be “some training for a week … that’s unrealistic and cannot happen,” she said. “This would be a whole different way of them doing things. One thing we’ve already heard is, let’s create an ongoing, sustainable restorative justice initiative.”

BUILD has done violence intervention work since 1969, using long-term relationships and street outreach to mediate conflict and stop violence and retaliation before it happens.

“When you have the right people in the building … people who have lived experiences and know this work, you catch things before they happen, and you hear about them. They come to you first, and that is that the beginning of that prevention,” he said.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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