We happened to pick up a year-old City Bureau investigation that found there is no youth-based training for police in Chicago schools. Then, something interesting happened: There was action on an issue we assumed was politically dead.

By Jeremy Borden

(Photo: nora_at/Flickr)

(Photo: nora_at/Flickr)

When chasing down a story, it’s a journalist’s ever-present fear that an outside event will make her work and research obsolete by the time it’s published.

In this case, we may have stumbled into a story where events are catching up to us. Several weeks into our investigation with WBEZ’s Curious City on why police in Chicago schools don’t receive youth- or school-specific training, there’s significant movement on the issue of training and behavioral health that hasn’t had traction in years. We covered the development of two bills moving through the Illinois Senate for the Chicago Reader.

A little background: In 2006, for reasons still unclear to us, the Chicago Police Department disbanded its School Resource Officer unit. (Do you know why? Reach out!) Ever since, police in schools became just like any other cop — they have little oversight from administrators at Chicago Public Schools and few specific rules from CPD. School-based officers also don’t receive any specialized training or support for a position that’s hardly comparable to a cop’s regular neighborhood beat.

That could soon change. Last year, a story from City Bureau’s Yana Kunichoff published in the Chicago Reader and an analysis from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law called attention to the issue, and a push began to require training for police officers.

That effort bore fruit earlier this month when the Illinois Senate unanimously passed SB 2925, which would require, for the first time, School Resource Officer training for all law enforcement placed in schools across the state.

Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Cook County Democrat whose district includes parts of Oak Park, was the chief sponsor of the measure. She told City Bureau in an interview that she has worked closely with Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, the Shriver Center attorney and an outspoken advocate for training, along with representatives from state law enforcement, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Police Department to iron out differences.

When the bill was first brought up, powerful forces took turns lining up against it: CPD, CPS and state law enforcement among them. Lightford says that through detailed and intense negotiations — that she described as cordial and productive — the group ironed out differences and all sides dropped their opposition to the final version of the measure, clearing the way for its passage. Among the biggest changes, as we detailed in our Reader followup story:

Ten specific categories of training were pared to a few concrete areas, with details of the training to be ironed out later; officers who have gone through similar training can apply for a waiver; and the mandatory training comes with a window for compliance — the youth-based training won’t be required until 2021. Illinois police departments were also encouraged to apply for federal funding to pay for the youth-based officer training through the Department of Justice.

Officers will be trained in “areas of youth and adolescent developmental issues, educational administrative issues, prevention of child abuse and exploitation, youth mental health treatment, and juvenile advocacy,” according to the final version of the Senate bill.

The compromises are clear when considering the specifics of the original bill, which said school-based officers needed to be trained in “implicit bias,” “trauma-informed care,” “child and adolescent development and psychology,” and “de-escalation techniques for limiting the use of physical force and mechanical and chemical restraints,” among others.

Lightford said Mbekeani-Wiley was crucial in the process. “She was amazing, she did an outstanding job,” Lightford said. “And she built the trust in the room with negotiators.”

Lightford said that while talks have been under way for months, there was new urgency on the issue because of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., with both law enforcement and civil rights advocates alike recognizing that armed police officers in schools are likely to become more commonplace in Illinois and elsewhere.

Lightford’s measure has a good chance to sail through the House and be approved by Gov. Bruce Rauner by the end of the summer, the senator said. “I think that because it has no opposition, because it left the Senate unanimously, it shows we’re concerned about protecting our schools,” she said.

I asked Lightford about whether the often-toxic relationship between youth and police could be repaired, as highlighted by the mayoral task force that studied the issue. “CPD and youth — particularly youth of color — is antagonistic, to say the least,” the Police Accountability Task Force found.

“I see a police officers’ role as a mentorship, mentors for the children and [someone] for them to look up to and admire,” Lightford said. “That’s the disconnect in the community… this is a good first step in getting that done.”

Stark challenges remain. As the Shriver Center wrote in its report last year: “Many communities of color, youth specifically, do not see the police as an institution that protects them … Students should not have their mental health issues treated with misdemeanors and their college and employment opportunities held hostage by criminalized adolescent behavior.”

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