Last April, Monique came to school the way she did most days, with books in hand and a razor blade in her mouth. The 14-year-old believed the razor, held precariously under her tongue, would protect her from the dangers of her neighborhood near the Cabrini-Green public housing development.
Monique, who asked that her real name not be used because she fears disciplinary action, is now a sophomore at a Chicago public high school. She began carrying the razor last winter, she said, after a man made sexual advances to her on her way to school.
On that April day, a school security officer saw her pull the razor from her mouth and took her to the principal’s office. She is now awaiting a hearing that may result in her expulsion.
If that happens, Monique will join the 558 public school students who have been expelled since 1995 for serious acts of misconduct, such as possession of weapons or narcotics. All have been referred to one of 54 alternative high schools.
At a time when schools in rural and suburban America have been shocked by random acts of unexplained violence, Chicago schools continue to crack down on what, by most measures, has become regrettably commonplace. The number of students expelled from city public schools has jumped dramatically in the last three years, from 57 in the 1995-96 school year to 318 last year, according to an analysis of school records by The Chicago Reporter.
And while schools are seizing more weapons than ever, students are devising ways to beat the system. Five Chicago public school teens told the Reporter how they smuggled weapons–”for self-defense, they say–”past metal detectors and other security stops.
“It’s a terrible commentary on society in the 1990s when people feel the need to have a weapon to protect themselves,” said Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Cozette Buckney.
But the former high school principal said the system cannot tolerate any violations. “The school has a right to a safe environment,” Buckney said. “When you bring a gun, you bring a gun, you bring a gun: It’s hard to see a gray area.”
The board’s zero tolerance policy, initiated in the fall of 1995, required principals to report all acts of misconduct. And now all high schools must have metal detectors. Lawmakers also have acted. On July 31, Gov. Jim Edgar signed legislation making the unlawful use of weapons on or within 1,000 feet of a school a class 3 felony, which carries a two- to five-year prison sentence. And last year the Chicago City Council prohibited the possession of utility knives and box cutters by anyone under 18.
“There are too many weapons in the hands of kids,” said schools Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas. “Schools need to be weapon-free.”
Sheila Castillo, executive director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, said security decisions should be left to individual schools. “It would be irresponsible of a school and a council to not recognize that it has a problem,” she said. But each should decide which measures are appropriate, which could include at-random searches, selective use of detectors, or anti-gang programs, she said.
Systemwide mandates like the board’s zero tolerance policy tie the hands of local schools and “are trampling on the rights of the local schools to make decisions for themselves,” Castillo added.
On Aug. 25, the first day of school, the doors at Senn High School, 5900 N. Glenwood Ave., had been open less than an hour, but Assistant Principal Joseph Ruiz already had worked up a sweat.
As Ruiz directed students, a police van cut across the front lawn of the Edgewater school and parked near an entrance, where a walk-through metal detector stood ready. A second detector, stationed at a rear door, was not in use.
“For today we didn’t use both walk-throughs; we didn’t want to have long lines,” said Ruiz, who with three guards, greeted freshmen at the front entrance.
At Senn, 27 students have been expelled for misconduct since the 1995-96 school year–”more than any other school. Nine of them were expelled for weapons violations, school records show.
“The students know that we’ll follow through,” Ruiz said. “If we respect the kids, they respect us and the rules.”
Metal detectors picked up 21 knives and razors, records show. Last year, Senn’s 2,094-student body was 42.9 percent black, 35 percent Latino, 13.9 percent Asian and 7.5 percent white.
At South Shore Community Academy, 7529 S. Constance Ave., 25 students have been expelled since 1995. The school is 99.9 percent black.
Principal Frank Horton said he makes it a point to be outside the building at 2:35 p.m., when students are dismissed. “The leadership starts at the top, that’s why I go out there,” he said. “We catch them, and we deal with it; we don’t flush it down the toilet. We follow the law.”
Last year, the Chicago Police Department’s School Patrol Unit made 572 arrests for weapon violations or violent crimes on or near school grounds, compared to 459 in 1997-98, police records show.
Still, weapons slip through. Lytae Sanders, a 1997 graduate of Lane Technical High School, 2501 W. Addison St., told the Reporter she often came to school with a box cutter or kitchen knife tucked away in her book bag. Evading metal detectors was just a matter of timing, she said.
School officials “only scanned you when you were late for school,” and they only checked the “assumed troublemakers,” said Sanders, now a sophomore at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She said she never intended to hurt anyone, but wanted to protect herself from crime in her West Side neighborhood.
At Near North Career Metropolitan High School, 1450 N. Larrabee St., Ericka smuggled razors into school by coming late, after security staff had turned off the metal detectors. “If they tried to call me back, I’d say I couldn’t because I was too late for class,” said Ericka, now 17 and a junior at another public school. She asked that her last name not be used.
Mike Pols, disciplinary dean at Sullivan High School, 6631 N. Bosworth Ave. in Rogers Park, has to check 15 first-floor windows and at least as many doors. “If a kid really wanted to get a weapon in the building, what he could do is come in and be perfectly clean and have nothing, get through the metal detector, get through the hand scan and go to a back door. His buddy could go waiting out there with the weapon and slip it to him that way.
“That could be eliminated by having enough security people at every door, but that’s unrealistic because the board doesn’t have that kind of money, and we don’t have the people,” he said.
Box cutters often get through a metal detector because many have plastic handles, Pols said. “Please don’t tell me you work at the Jewel and open up boxes and you forgot [about] it, because I’m not going to believe you, and you’ll be up for an expulsion. It’s a razor blade with a handle.”
In June, Vallas announced that metal detectors would be installed in the remaining 11 high schools that do not have them.
But on Aug. 25, no detectors were in place at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, 211 S. Laflin St.. The school, considered the crown jewel of the Chicago system, has expelled seven students since 1995. It has three metal detectors, but it should have nine, board records show.
The Local School Council has voted against metal detectors, said Principal Joyce Kenner. “We feel it’s under the control with security personnel and staff in the building.”
Still “we are very vigilant about safety. Everyone has their eyes and ears open.”
“I feel fortunate –¦ privileged to say that I have never viewed any type of metal detector inside of Whitney Young,” said senior Khandicia N. Randolph, 17.
Because of the high caliber of the students and parental support, metal detectors aren’t needed on a daily basis at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave., said Assistant Principal James Williams. The school has security cameras and personnel, and the walk-through detectors will be up soon, he said.
Sixty-one high schools and four elementary schools have a total of 270 hand-held metal detectors, board documents show. But the Reporter’s survey in July and August found the schools only could account for 196 of the devices. The schools told the Reporter they had 149 walk-through detectors; the school board counts 169.
Principal Barbara Valerious saw “surprise on youngsters’ faces” on the first day of school when they saw the metal detector posted at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, at 3857 W. 111th St. in Mount Greenwood. “We haven’t used them yet because we haven’t had any instruction,” on their installation, she said.
“There is no way to make a school 100 percent secure,” Vallas said. “The metal detectors are a small part of security.”
Will Smith Jr., metal detector coordinator for the board’s Department of Safety and Security, checks metal detectors through random inspections and surveys. But schools are not required to report if the detectors are down, Smith said. “We don’t have a check and balance from our office to go out and ask them –˜Let me see your four hand-held’,” Smith said. If any school wants additional equipment, it must come out of their own budgets, he said.
Vallas estimated the board has spent about $200,000 on metal detectors since 1993.
A student caught with weapons or drugs is suspended for 10 days, and the school notifies police. Students then must appear at an expulsion hearing, which can take months to schedule. School officials send a letter to the student’s parents, notifying them of the hearing date. The hearing officer listens to both sides, then recommends any disciplinary action to Buckney, who makes the final decision.
There is a huge backlog in hearings. For example, Monique, who was caught in April, is still waiting for a hearing date.
As of June, the board had expelled 318 students during the 1997-1998 school year, with 190 cases pending. During the summer 210 more students were expelled, reports show. Of 1,001 hearings in 1997-98, the board expelled more than half the students for serious acts of misconduct.
The number of expulsions would be higher if not for the board policy that allows first-time drug offenders to be referred to Saturday Morning Alternative Reach-Out and Teach, a counseling program. Since 1995, 485 expelled students have been referred to alternative schools.
In 1995-1996, the board employed six hearing officers; today there are 23. Some are third-year law students, which worries Rachel B. Cowen, an attorney with Connelly, Sheehan & Moran who has represented children facing expulsion. Third-year law students “don’t have the experience to be judges,” she said.
Derrick Ford, a supervising attorney at the Children and Family Justice Center at the Northwestern University Law Clinic, has represented 10 to 15 children in expulsion hearings. He called the system “railroad justice.” It is “like a cattle car on the day they have the hearings. On the hour, hearing after hearing, kid after kid not represented.”
And he questions the impartiality of hearing officers, since they are “appointed by and paid by the board of education.”
Schools General Counsel Marilyn Johnson said the law students “have legal training and have been appropriately trained in the process by us. And they are fair and impartial,” she said. Families get a letter that states they have the “right to bring a representative. –¦ that could be a parent. It may be a lay advocate. It may be a lawyer.”
And because expelled students are sent to alternative schools, “the education deprivation is minimal,” she added.
Lytae Sanders said the board “should try to understand the situation. Most people from Chicago public schools are from bad neighborhoods. They might be using (a weapon) to protect themselves. They should review the situation instead of –˜she has a weapon and now she’s out of here.'”
Buckney said officials try to consider how a student is performing in school. “We don’t want to say, blanketly that every single child–”no matter what age–”that brings a pocketknife must be expelled.”
Hyde Park Career Academy, at 6220 S. Stony Island Ave., has had 21 expulsions since 1995. The first metal detectors arrived this school year, said Principal Weldon A. Beverly.
“Keep in mind that anything is considered a weapon, including a Boy Scout knife, and you’re expelled,” Beverly said. “If you have a system-wide policy, which they are moving toward, then you have to stick with it, and that’s basically what we did. The environment is changing and the students are going to have to deal with it.”
Tokumbo Bodunde, LaJeanne Grinnage, Meola Ivy, Karen Shields, Cedric L. Stines and Kat Zeman helped research this article.