OPRF, police to share records

Citing an effort to balance school safety and equity, the Oak Park and River Forest High School Board voted unanimously Nov. 17 in favor of an intergovernmental agreement designed to improve communication between schools and police.

The agreement is a partnership between OPRF District 200, elementary and middle schools in Oak Park District 97, and the Village of Oak Park. All three voted for its approval.

The new agreement “satisfies the need to adhere to state law while providing a safe, equitable learning environment for all of our students,” according to the District 200 Board Briefs publication sent on Nov. 18.

The agreement comes two years after the District 200 board voted to eliminate its School School Resource Officer (SRO), removing uniformed police from the school. The new agreement does not include an SRO but rather provides guidelines for how school officials and police should cooperate.

To develop the agreement, public and private meetings took place between the Oak Park Police Department and the boards of Districts 200 and 97. Their goal was to review the legality, morality and convenience of the intergovernmental agreement (IGA).

A document released by the District 200 board shared some of the key discussion points from those meetings. Questions submitted by the Village of Oak Park included: “Where did this come from? New state law? Was this someone’s idea? Did something go wrong?”

The response: State law requires a reciprocal reporting system between police and schools, and board policies require cooperation with law enforcement in certain situations. “This IGA provides logistics for ensuring we are effectively implementing those policies,” the document states.

An Oct. 25 editorial in the Wednesday Journal pointed out that, “It became clear, in our reporting on an arrest last spring of a student outside OPRF who had a handgun in his backpack, there were foundational communication gaps between the high school and the police department.”

The agreement requires the school and police to provide each other with a list of contacts to facilitate communication. It also mandates an officer be part of a Threat Assessment Team, as required by the School Safety Drill Act.

At the board meeting on Nov. 17, Superintendent Greg Johnson provided some additional details. He said the board had received several questions about when an officer would get involved in a school incident, or when a search by an Oak Park police officer could occur.

“The only instance, historically, that we would do that, and the only one that we anticipate ever doing, is when there’s a firearm—when there’s a rumor or suspicion that there may be a weapon of that type on a student,” he said.

Johnson pointed out the current protocol for handling a student with a potential or confirmed firearm is to call 911, and whichever available police officer from OPPD would respond at that time.

“What we want to do is build on our relationship (with OPPD) so that officers who would respond, or be in our Threat Assessment Team, for example, would know OPRF—know our staff,” he said. “When it’s time to respond and work with our kids, then we’d have that relationship to decide how to respond. Without the IGA, we lose out on that.”

Board member Kebreab Henry questioned many of the proposed changes, especially the way questions had been answered about the IGA in the past. He argued that many levels of the proposed protocol could allow for biased reporting and handling of incidents within the school.

He also pointed out the board had provided no examples at the time—at least not “on the record”—of what police in schools would actually do. “That looks like legalese to me, and I’m just not comfortable with getting legalese instead of an explanation of what the limitations are,” he said.

He also said he had concerns about how administrators, appropriate officials, and others would be trained to handle incidents. Would they be trained in de-escalation? He said, “I just don’t see why we’re moving so quickly.”

Board member Mary Anne Mohnanraj agreed rushing into this agreement would be detrimental to students, staff, and the wider community. “There is a temptation to think that ‘everyone involved here is someone who I trust—someone who’s doing what’s best for everyone’, but we have to think about 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 40 years from now, if this is still around, if it has the built in protections it needs.”

Johnson responded by saying that he heard and respected the concerns raised to the proponents of the IGA. He then clarified that “there is nothing we put in (the IGA) that binds us, or requires anything of us, this school district, beyond law or policy already requires us to do.”

Mohanraj and Henry ultimately voted for the agreement, which included two amendments.

The first amendment states parents must be present for any police-student interview, except in the case of a safety or health crisis, or if a warrant or court order forbids police from contacting the student’s guardian. If parents can’t be present for an interview for reasons stated above, a school employee can stand in for that role.

The second amendment states student records can only be shared with the OPPD without parental consent in the case of a health or safety crisis, as well.

“These safeguards were not enough for senior Taylor Montes-Williams, a member of ROYAL, or Revolutionary Youth Action League, a “community based organization led by BIPOC (Black/Indigenous People of Color) youth organizers,” according to the group’s Facebook page.

“(ROYAL) was the group that helped advocate for the (removal of the SRO), and it almost feels as though our work is not taken seriously,” she said. “We celebrated getting the school resource officer out. That was a huge accomplishment for us. We really thought we were dismantling a system, and here we are, reinstating that system.

“I think this puts a lot of fear into marginalized students and people who have had issues with policing,” she said. “This just puts them in a tougher predicament, because now they’re in closer proximity to the systems that oppress them the most. It’s a very scary feeling. That’s how I feel. I’m kind of scared.”