Outside Mather High, a security guard reports that a student handed a knife to a friend during a gang disturbance. At Julian High, some teenagers who were furious at a school policy banning hooded sweatshirts get into an argument with security guards, leading to one student’s arrest for assault. At Medill Elementary, a student pulls out a black gun and points it at a classmate. Officials later learn the weapon was a BB gun.
These are just a sample of the incidents of school violence reported to police during October 2006. Chicago Public Schools officials say October is the most violent month of the school year, and the numbers bear that out: Police filed 678 reports about incidents in schools or on school grounds. Catalyst Chicago obtained 50 of those reports.
Except for one sexual assault, the most serious incidents were cases of aggravated assault or battery, in which students verbally threatened or physically struck teachers, security guards or other school staff.
Rick Perrotte, coordinator of safety and security for the Chicago Teachers Union, points out that teachers and other staff are protected employees, just like police officers and firemen, and the teachers’ contract requires schools to call police any time a teacher is hit or even threatened.
In one such case at Englewood’s John Hope College Prep, a young man who was told not to eat potato chips in the lunch line hollered at the lunchroom worker who scolded him, saying, ‘I am going to kick you in the face.’ ” In other cases, teachers were slapped, struck by a thrown pencil, and hit and scratched after asking a student to leave the bathroom.
Perrotte and CTU spokeswoman Rosemaria Genova say there’s good reason to get the police involved, even if the incident seems relatively insignificant: A student’s problem behavior often gets worse as time goes on.
“First, it is a pencil, but then next time it is a garbage can, then next time it is a chair,” Genova says.
Perrotte adds that bringing in police gives teachers extra documentation of problems if principals do not report incidents to central office.
‘He said, she said’
Most commonly, the reports obtained by Catalyst document simple assault and battery cases stemming from fights between students. Principals say that few of these fights are gang-related brawls; usually, the incidents are “he-said/she-said” affairs that get out of hand. A case in point was a scuffle at Chicago Vocational, in which two brothers got into a fight with a few girls, one of whom picked up a chair and struck one of the young men in the back.
Interim Chicago Police Superintendent Dana Starks notes that just because a police report is made doesn’t mean an incident is severe. Officers respond to what the victim and the school staff want, and usually a report is filed in response to a request.
Andres Durbak, chief of the CPS Office of Safety and Security, says that during his tenure he has worked hard to make sure that the police department and schools work collaboratively. However, he notes that police and school administrators have somewhat different perspectives on incidents.
Police try to determine if there is evidence of a crime and often respond to victims’ needs, while schools are trying to determine whether students violated the Code of Conduct.
But even minor incident reports should be taken seriously if they show a student is trending toward violence, notes a September report by the National Association of Attorneys General. The report was the result of work by a school and campus violence taskforce of 27 attorneys general, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
The report notes that before many incidents of major violence, such as last year’s shootings at Virginia Tech, the perpetrator was involved in minor incidents. But because information wasn’t shared, authorities didn’t notice the students’ violent tendencies until it was too late.