A proposed safe school zone around Evanston Township High School has pitted school officials against neighbors, who say the zone could hurt businesses and property values and unfairly target people living in the neighborhood for arrest.
“This seems to be a continuous disrespect and disregard for the citizens of the ward who will be most affected,” fifth ward resident Carlis Sutton told city council members at a meeting Monday. “I hope the city council’s not consistent with its history, where it puts a burden on the fifth ward to support the rest of Evanston.”
Under Illinois law, a safe school zone creates an area where police officers can arrest people for trespassing who have been suspended or expelled from school or who have been personally notified they cannot enter the safe school zone. Members of the District 202 school board have been talking about establishing a safe school zone for weeks, and passed a resolution to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with the city unanimously in June. The next step is for the city council to approve the intergovernmental agreement, which would allow Evanston police officers to enforce the boundaries. That agreement came before city council members for introduction Monday night.
After listening to testimony from several people who opposed its creation, aldermen ultimately voted to hold introduction of the enabling ordinance for another meeting, in order to work out the language of the ordinance and to communicate better with neighbors.
“We have a high school, a top-notch high school, that happens to sit in a low income community with black and brown people and we’re trying to make other people feel comfortable,” said Ald. Delores Holmes, who introduced the motion to delay introduction of the safe school zone ordinance. “I think we have to work on it to determine if it’s even the right thing to do.”
Under the current proposal facing the city council, the safe school zone would extend from the high school to the public sidewalk around its perimeter, over the street and to the sidewalk on the other side of the street, ending at the property lines on the opposite side of the street. It would include Dodge Avenue from Lake Street to Church Street, Church Street from Dodge to Lemar Avenue, Pitner Avenue from Lake to Church and Lake Street from Dodge to Pitner, according to city documents.
“A lot of people do use the excuse of that area to congregate, where they’re sometimes posturing and quite frankly, up to no good,” Supt. Eric Witherspoon told city council members Monday. “If we had the ability and the authority to say to folks, you’re in a safe school zone, you need to move along, I can’t begin to tell you how much that one tool would go to begin to defuse things and keep our children safe.”
The idea for a safe school zone stemmed from two years worth of conflicts outside the high school, involving students and people not attending the school, according to a memo written to the school board by ETHS Safety Director Sam Pettineo.
“During the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years there have been a number of incidents where outside parties in conflict with current students have arrived in the area of ETHS intending to have confrontations,” Pettineo wrote. “On some occasions this has resulted in physical conflicts in the street.”
Most rencently, police arrested a 21-year-old Evanston man whom they say fired a gun in a dispute that took place directly across the street from the high school this June—just as hundreds of parents and students were filing into the auditorium for the Nichols School graduation.
In his memo, Pettineo said the safe school zone was intended to prevent conflicts flaring up between people inside the school and people outside the school, not to interrupt community members from going about their business.
But several people speaking at the meeting said they believed creation of a safe school zone would have negative impacts on the neighborhood.
“I live within half a mile of the high school, but I do not want a knee-jerk response,” said Carlis Sutton, who ran for fifth ward alderman this fall. “If you’re looking for reasonable suspicion, it’s walking while black, driving while black and riding your bike while black.”
Betty Esther and Madeline Ducree, who also live near the high school, both said they believed neighbors were not properly notified about the proposed safe school zone. Meanwhile, Bridget Giles, owner of the Ebony Barbershop across from the high school at Church and Dodge, said she had just found out about the safe school zone idea on Saturday.
A safe school zone would be bad for business, Giles said. When school lets out, Giles said there is often a “mob of policemen” idling their cars in front of her shop, leaving customers no place to park. Meanwhile, she added, all that police activity “doesn’t look good for business.”
Another neighbor of the high school said she was concerned that her grandson might get picked up by police visiting her house, and said that the safe school zone could be bad for property values if potential buyers found out that it existed.
Ald. Delores Holmes (5th ward), said she was disappointed that school officials had not notified residents or businesses, and moved to hold a vote on the creation of a safe school zone until the city could hold a community meeting. City council members voted 6-3 to hold the motion, with Ald. Ann Rainey, Ald. Jane Grover and Ald. Coleen Burrus in opposition.
Ald. Peter Braithwaite (2nd Ward), said he believed it would be irresponsible for the city council to introduce the safe school zone proposal without allowing residents to weigh in and participate in the process.
“Every single person in that audience has been affected by some form of violence over the years,” Braithwaite said, referring to the people who came to speak up against the safe school zone proposal.
“For them to say, ‘Hold on, wait a minute,’—that should be pause for us.”
District 202 board president Gretchen Livingston addressed the vote on her Facebook page, saying she was disappointed that the safe school zone would not be in place before the school year.
Citing “misrepresentations flying around the council chambers,” Livingston pointed out that the fact that the safe school zone would not include private property, and that only people who were notified that they had been excluded would be subject to arrest. She also noted that businesses were not in the proposed zone, and argued that an increased sense of safety could not cause harm to a business.
“The safety of our students should be our chief concern, and while listening to the discussion tonight, it was clear that very few people in the room had our students’ best interest at heart,” Livingston said.