Education & Youth

Meeting recap: The Safe Schools Initiative returns to District 205—along with tightened security measures

At the August 10 meeting, district officials announced new safety measures, including appointment-only campus access, designated entrances and exits, and alarms—along with a renewed commitment to refer students to local law enforcement.

A file photo of a safety school zone sign outside of Thornton Township High School, as shown October 16, 2021. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis
A file photo of a safety school zone sign outside of Thornton Township High School, as shown October 16, 2021. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

Public safety took center stage at Thornton Township High Schools District 205’s first school board meeting of the 2023 academic year.

At an in-person meeting, Wednesday, August 10, at Thornwood High School in neighboring South Holland, Superintendent Nathaniel Cunningham, Jr. announced to parents and teachers District 205 would continue its Safe Schools Initiative. District leadership also approved its new discipline plan and announced forthcoming tightened security measures at district schools.

Launched last November, SSI is a response the district implemented to tamp down on fighting. SSI includes 10-day out-of-school suspensions and referring students to local law enforcement, which can arrest students and issue fines for fighting.

The first year of in-person learning since the pandemic began was a challenging one. During the 2022 academic year, videos of student-to-student altercations across district schools circulated social media.

District leadership found themselves facing a barrage of questions and criticism from parents, teachers, and students about public safety.

Community stakeholders were also critical of COVID-19 protocols, namely poor contact tracing, subpar alerts of classroom outbreaks, weekly testing confusion, and struggles to physically distance in cramped classrooms.

“We were able to miss some of the [COVID] waves that really hit some of the other districts,” said Superintendent Cunningham, Jr. said about the decision to keep a mask mandate through the 2022 year while other districts lifted there’s after an appellate Illinois court ruled the governor’s office could not enforce masking in schools.

However, in January, District 205 shifted to remote learning for two weeks due to a high number of COVID-19 cases reported before winter break.

Masking, which is optional this year, along with communication, crisis management, discipline, and attendance, were of top concern that night for the Faculty Association of District 205 Board President Dwyane Bearden, who presented.

“The main thing that I want to make sure is second nature within our district is, Dr. Cunningham, Madam President,” Bearden said, “that we are communicating with all of the staff members as far as the level of accountability—not just within administration, but with the staff and with the students.”

Bearden had been critical of district leadership for laxed communication during the prior year, and district officials did acknowledge those shortcomings during this meeting.

Executive Director of Special Services Thomas Porter presented the district’s new discipline plan, which it approved and will post on the website. Porter also presented out-of-school suspension data that reflected a 70% suspension rate during the 2016 academic year. “We were the number two suspending school district in the state of Illinois,” Porter said.

That ranking dropped to number 14 by the end of 2017 academic year. Porter said there haven’t been any students expelled during the 2021 academic year, when the district was fully remote, and data from the 2022 year is not yet available.

New security measures

Families can soon expect gated access at each campus: visitor access by appointment only, restricting student and visitor access to specific entrance and exit doors, providing staff with access cards, and alarms on all non-designated entrance and exit doors.

Early last academic year, schools resorted to bag checks as a security measure. Students waited in long lines that stretched outside. An early snow crept in, creating concerns about how long school officials could sustain the practice.

Then came SSI. However, the program didn’t stop altercations between students and even students and teachers last year. Or even a shooting on school grounds. Weeks after SSI took effect, a Thornton student exchanged gunfire with two individuals in a car during dismissal before Thanksgiving break.

In February, without any debate, board members unanimously approved an intergovernmental agreement with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office to have officers placed at district schools. “But they backed out,” said Superintendent Cunningham, Jr., even though the district had the funds to pay for school resource officers, he said.

There was a plan to bus all students, regardless of where they lived. But, “because of a bus driver shortage nationwide, we do not have enough bus drivers to handle it,” Cunningham, Jr. said—even though state funding was available to cover the costs, he said.

In March, the board approved a Safe Passage agreement with Roseland Ceasefire, a Chicago-based anti-violence organization that provides an adult presence as students travel to and from school.

That vote was contentious, with some board members demonstrating no knowledge of the organization, its documented violence reduction work on Chicago’s South and West Sides—even though officials had been provided a detailed proposal before the meeting—and some noting they would prefer a police response instead.

Safe Passage services were approved and offered at Thornton. They will continue throughout the 2023 academic year at both Thornton and Thornridge High School in Dolton.

“I think we did not try hard enough to find trained police officers,” said Board Member Bernadette Lawrence in response to the proposal.

Board member Stanley H. Brown said he supported the escort program, but also wanted some type of “checks and balances” for it going forward.

‘Already struggling families’

Earlier this year, s tate officials issued a news release warning about the dangers of police issuing tickets in schools, a staple of the SSI.

In April, Illinois State Superintendent Carmen I. Ayala warned of the financial and emotional burdens ticketing for behavioral infractions could have on families.

For the more than 50 percent of our students and families in Illinois who qualify as low-income, paying $250 for a fine means the lights in the house will literally shut off, mom and dad will have no fuel to get to work, or there will be no hot meals on the table,” Ayala said in a statement in response to an investigation from the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica documented the ways districts allowed police officers, either from local departments or stationed as school resource officers, to ticket students.

Senate Bill 100, commonly referred to as “SB100,” prohibits schools from issuing tickets. The law does not, however, restrict school districts from outsourcing that practice to law enforcement.

“Even a $40 fine has a tangible impact on the safety, security, and wellbeing of an entire family,” Ayala said, noting there is no data to show that tickets actually reduce fights or increase student attendance.

Ayala went on to add that the tickets don’t improve truancy but rather “impose a financial burden on already struggling families” and “make students feel even less cared for, less welcome, and less included at school, which in turn leads to more antisocial and defiant behavior.”

The fines often backfire. Students miss school for administrative hearings as families struggle to pay down the fines, which the city or village can send into debt collection.

At Thornwood High School in South Holland, families have only paid 23% of the nearly $50,000 in total fines issued over the past four years, a joint published Chicago Tribune and ProPublica investigation and database showed. Village officials confirmed the fines can be sent to a debt collector.

It’s unclear if Harvey Police Department has ticketed Thornton students in recent years or if Harvey sends tickets to debt collection, according to the database.

Fine amounts can vary from city to city, district to district, school to school, but T hornton students can expect $500 fines, at least.

“Acts of violence at the hands of students across our nation, state, district and even within our halls, are major concerns. Parents, guardians, and YES STUDENTS are constantly worried about the safety in our schools,” said Principal Todd Whitaker in a letter sent to families in August.

The letter adds students can expect 10-day suspensions for “mob action,” possible expulsion for students involved in multiple fights, and that most students won’t be impacted by the measure.

It does not, however, specify what behaviors constitute “mob action,” but this was met with some negative views from students on Instagram, who derided both the amount and the action itself.

There have been several fights at Thornton, Thornwood, and Thornridge High School in Dolton since this school year began.

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