Passage of a proposed “safe school zone” around Evanston Township High School has stalled, as city council members and residents raise questions about what it would mean for neighbors’ civil rights.
Under Illinois law, a "safe school zone" is an area around a school where police officers can arrest people for trespassing who police and administrators believe may pose a threat to safety. Creating such a zone requires passage of an intergovernmental agreement between the school and the city, since it involves Evanston police officers operating on school grounds.
The school board passed a resolution to enter into the agreement with the city unanimously in June, but city council members delayed voting on the matter until later in September—and it appears that a vote may be even further delayed.
At a meeting of the city-school liaison committee on Tuesday, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl suggested that the city should collect a month’s worth of data from police officers on situations where a “safe school zone” would come into play before making a decision.
“The end game is to have the city council have a more informed vote that we could have more confidence in than we could have today,” Tisdahl said at the meeting. “What we are concerned about is making a number of arrests of young African-American men that will have arrest records for the rest of their lives.”
School officials, however, say the safe school zone is simply an extension of something they’re already doing—and that arrests are very infrequent.
There are already two city police officers working as school resource officers, and the school district is asking to extend their range from the sidewalk around the high school to the street and to the sidewalk on the other side, according to Supt. Eric Witherspoon.Related: Proposed Safe School Zone Pits ETHS Officials Against School Neighbors
When people outside the high school want to start a fight with someone inside the school, they’ll wait on the other side of the street at dismissal time, just outside the range of the school resource officers. If school resource officers could police that side, too, Witherspoon said, they could effectively ask kids to move along, or on very rare instances, arrest someone who doesn’t comply.
“Outsiders who come across the street, they know that they’re just off our property, and they assemble in a very threatening manner,” he said. “We many times know that they’re gang-affiliated. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve.”
He also cited a recent state survey that showed only 58 percent of ETHS students say they feel safe “outside around the school.” According to Witherspoon, 85 percent of the student body replied to the survey.
“We’d like a lot more kids to say, ‘I feel safe outside of my school,’” he said.
City council members on the city school liaison committee said they wanted to help the school keep dismissal safe, too, but were concerned that creating a safe school zone is not the best way to do it.
“Who’s going to make the arrest of a kid for standing on the sidewalk? That would be the city of Evanston,” Mayor Tisdahl said. “That’s where our problem lies.”
When the safe school zone appeared on the council’s agenda for discussion earlier in August, several residents came to protest, saying the safe school zone might unfairly target neighbors living in the area. Those concerns came up again at the city school liaison committee meeting.
Albert Pitts, a lifelong Evanston resident, said he was worried that the safe zone would unfairly target a certain group of people.
“Minorities are the ones that are being subjected to this,” Pitts said. “This is a focus on African-Americans.”
He said he and some friends were recently talking on the sidewalk outside of Sam’s Barbershop, across from the high school, when a police officer came up and asked them to move along. Pitts said the officer told them that a group of more than two people standing on the sidewalk was a “problem gathering,” according to city ordinance.
“So grown men standing and talking and meeting and greeting each other on Church Street in front of a business where we’re doing business, you mean we’re in violation of the law?” Pitts said. “When you say, trust you that no one is going to be subjected to anything that’s going to be detrimental to them, I find that hard to believe.”
Fellow Evanston resident Madeline Ducre said she, too, was upset because of the proposed safe school zone, both because she feared it would unfairly target the black community, and also because she said the high school had failed to communicate what was going on to neighbors. Ducre said she did not learn about the proposed safe school zone from the high school, but heard about it from someone else long after the board began discussing the matter.
“All of you at the high school, you did the wrong thing when you did not let the community know what you were about,” she said. “I pay taxes just like anybody else. I need to know what’s happening.”
Based on the mayor’s suggestion, Ald. Jane Grover said the committee should submit a resolution to the city council, recommending that the police department take a month to gather data before coming back to vote on the safe school zone. School board member Bill Geiger also suggested that the committee form a small group to talk about how the safe school zone would be implemented.
Introduction of the safe school zone ordinance was on Monday night’s city council agenda, but aldermen voted to move that discussion to the Sept. 23 meeting.