Caught in the storm

To close school or tough out brutally cold weather? Chicago faces a hard decision.

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago

Sylvie Smith and her younger sister marched briskly through the unplowed sheet of snow that blanketed the grounds of Bernhard Moos Elementary School in Humboldt Park on Monday and impatiently pushed the intercom button. Smith’s sister, a student at Moos, stood behind Smith as they waited for the door to open.

“The car broke down today,” Smith said. The two sisters took a rideshare to Moos, more than 10 miles from their Rogers Park neighborhood, to make it to school. “She’s an hour and a half late so hopefully she’s not in trouble. And I have to go to work after this.”

The Smith sisters were among the beleaguered residents battling the morning commute after seven inches of snow blanketed Chicago from Sunday evening through early Monday.

At a school in an unplowed residential neighborhood in Rogers Park, a principal and a parent volunteer helped push a family’s stuck SUV that was blocking a line of cars dropping off late students. All around the city, buses arrived late, educators parked awkwardly in snowy lots behind schools, and families battled snowdrifts and unplowed roads to deliver their children and get to work.

During brutal weather weeks, Chicago schools face a quandary: call off classes and force the majority low-income population they serve to scramble for child care, or tough it out amid snow and ice, frigid temperatures, and poor driving conditions that jeopardize safety of educators and families.

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
The chilly morning scene outside Moos Elementary in Humboldt Park.

Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson acknowledged the tightrope on Monday at a press conference about the city’s emergency preparedness. “While cancellations can be disruptive, we will not hesitate to cancel classes if we think we are unable to safely receive students,” she said.

To complicate matters, the district’s budget crisis years ago led it to privatize janitorial contracts, so schools that used to have full-time engineers and custodians to sprinkle salt and shovel sidewalks now rely on part-time and contract support. On Monday, some schools were stuck waiting on private contractors who didn’t show up before the bell rang.

At Finkl Elementary in Little Village, a teacher said that as of noon, no one had come to plow the school parking lot.

Outside a Humboldt Park school, a snow remover who preferred not to give his name yelled over the whir of his machine, “We need more help.”

Those contractors work through Aramark, SodexoMagic, and other private firms that, since 2014, have received more than $400 million in contracts from Chicago schools. In addition to tasks like cleaning schools and eradicating rodents, they are charged with landscaping and snow removal.

A Chicago schools spokeswoman told Chalkbeat that she was waiting on updated reports from facilities staff, but that no weather-related problems, such as uncleared snow, had yet been reported to the central office.

But Christine Geovanis, a spokeswoman from the Chicago Teachers Union, said by email that the group had received reports of “lack of plowing on CPS property, shoveling issues where people can’t get from their cars to the building and sidewalks not being cleaned up.”

She added, “We know that schools have had problems with inadequate temperatures. With deficient investment in facilities management, those problems could intensify this week.”

More bad weather to come

Monday is just the start of what promises to be a frigid, and difficult to predict, week. For some, the concern was not snow, but the uncertainty of whether schools would stay open or close later in the week.

“Today the weather is unpleasant but I’m wondering if classes will be cancelled tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” said Gabriela De La Rosa, whose daughter is a fourth grader at Moos.

The district emailed parents about 9:30 p.m. Sunday that schools would be open Monday. The email, in English and Spanish, said the district would closely monitor weather reports. A wind chill warning was issued for Tuesday night through Thursday morning, plus temperatures are predicted to drop to 20 degrees below zero Wednesday.  

In the email, the school district promised alert educators and families by Tuesday afternoon if it would call off school midweek.

At least two of the charter networks, CICS and Noble, said they follow CPS’ policy for closing schools in bad weather.

Marsha Bradley usually takes her grandchild to pre-K classes at Goethe Elementary School in Logan Square. She hadn’t heard yet from the school about whether classes would be cancelled. But if they were, she said, “I’m the grandmother, so you’re looking at child care.”

A parent at Lincoln Park Elementary School, Emily Gray Tedrowe, faced another tough decision: whether to cancel Lincoln Park’s book fair that was scheduled to start mid-week.

“It’s super important to us,” said Tedrowe, because the book fair supports the school library — another critical resource that has been hit by budget cuts at many Chicago schools. “Honestly, it doesn’t make sense to do all the work of setting it up in our gym and to have a poorly attended fair, since it is one of our big PTA fundraisers.”

By mid-morning, Tedrowe had contacted the book fair company — Anderson’s, which is based in Aurora — and decided to postpone the fair.

Here’s what others are saying about Chicago’s snow-day decision-making:

First Person

We’ve watched as schools have responded to the Parkland shooting with more police. What we actually need: counselors and teachers of color

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students from the Grace Dodge campus in the Bronx walked out of class on March 14 to call for more investment in mental health support and counselors.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a year ago today, in which 17 students and staff members were killed, put gun violence front and center in the national conversation. It’s been a year since this horrific tragedy, and we must continue to put the focus on ways to truly make schools safer.

What happened in the aftermath of Parkland was incredible. Students, some of them our age, who had been silent became active, and those who have been speaking about gun violence for years got even louder. Marjory Stoneman Douglas students used their time in the spotlight to garner worldwide media attention, and youth across the country organized walkouts, including in New York.

We have so much love and respect for what the Parkland students did in the midst of tragedy. They helped, as models and through their actions, build the foundation for future generations fighting for social justice. But while their success is undeniable, we must also acknowledge the countless students of color who have advocated for the end of gun violence for years but have never attracted the same attention and who sometimes see school safety through a different lens.

These students, in organizations like LIFE Camp in Queens, and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, have been on the ground in black and brown communities long before the Parkland tragedy. The two of us — one a student of color, Alliyah, who has experienced some of the effects of gun violence, and one of us, Abe, who is white and has mostly escaped such experiences — stand together to elevate these voices.

The voices of students of color are too often ignored, forgotten, or silenced. Many communities of color know the consequences of gun violence all too well, and students there have had to reckon with the threat of gun violence too early in young lives. They go to schools that are already over-policed and wait in long lines every morning to go through metal detectors that do not make them feel safe. Yet these students’ stories have often been left out of the national debates about gun violence; that must change.

In the Bronx, where Alliyah went to middle school, the threat of gun violence was often present. In middle school, there were frequent loudspeaker announcements telling students that a peer had been injured or killed at the hands of a gun. Each notice left families and friends reeling, but their suffering didn’t attract much media attention. And the response to school shootings has often been to insist on more police, more security measures in and around schools that often don’t make students of color feel safer.

They can be hassled by police to and from school and wait in those long metal-detector lines to enter school. Students can be subject to random searches by the New York Police Department at school, as described by a recent student at a Black Lives Matter at School rally. Black students are more likely than whites to receive harsher punishments for the same categories of misbehavior in school. Taken together, over-policing in and around schools can lower test scores and become a reason to avoid school for some students of color, as a new study has found.

That’s why we believe the answer to school violence isn’t more police, more metal detectors, or teachers carrying guns. We were heartened to see New York state legislators supporting a bill to prevent teachers from carrying guns in schools. This is a start. But too many other states are responding to the tragedy at Parkland by arming teachers, which doesn’t make students of color feel more secure. It is extremely important that all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation, feel protected in schools. But this can only happen if students of color have a voice in how we respond to gun violence.

So what do students of color need? More adults of color whom students can turn to when they have problems; more counselors who can talk to us about issues we’re having before violence happens and when something traumatic does take place. Sometimes it’s a teacher’s positivity that creates a nurturing school environment. Alliyah, for example, attends a public high school where most of the students and teachers are white. But there are two black female teachers, and they constantly cheer her and each other on with positive comments, complimenting each other on how great natural hair looks and how proud they are of each other. This positive energy should be present for every student of color in every school.

Most of all, students of color don’t want to be viewed with constant suspicion and fear, becoming the targets of more — or more aggressive — policing in and out of school. We talk a lot about physical safety in schools but not enough about psychological, emotional, and cultural safety.

Students of color need to be able to walk into school every day knowing that they will be secure. This means that teachers should not be armed, that students should not be walking through metal detectors, that more teachers should look like their students of color, and that administrators have adequate funding for more school counselors.

Fourteen students died a year ago in Parkland. But since then 1,200 more children have lost their lives to gun violence. We must continue this fight to get that number to zero. Lives are literally on the line.

Alliyah Logan is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union and Youth Over Guns. Abe Rothstein is a student in the Teen Activist Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union.

police presence

New studies point to a big downside for schools bringing in more police

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Local governments across Tennessee paid to add 213 school resource officers this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.

It’s been a year since 17 people were killed at a Parkland, Florida high school, sparking a national conversation about gun control and a race to ratchet up school security.

Florida lawmakers, for instance, passed legislation requiring every public school in the state to have an armed guard. A Trump administration commission recommended armed school personnel, among other safety measures. Already, 71 percent of U.S. public high schools have at least one law enforcement officer who carries a gun.

While some argue that these efforts are increasingly necessary, others point out that school shootings are rare and fear that more security will backfire — making schools less conducive to learning and making it more likely for students of color to be funneled into the criminal justice system.

Now, two new academic studies provide strong evidence that some of those concerns are valid. Both released this week and looking at large groups of students, they are among the first research to directly link more police to worse academic outcomes for students.

In one case, adding police to Texas schools led to declines in high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. Another found that more police in New York City neighborhoods hurt the test scores of black male students.

“The results of both those studies, for us, put numbers to what we already know and what the experiences of young people are,” said Maria Fernandez, a senior campaign strategist for the Advancement Project, which advocates for less punitive discipline in schools.

The papers strongly suggest that police are the cause of those negative outcomes, though they aren’t definitive proof. And they don’t tell us anything about whether the police made schools safer overall. Still, they underscore how efforts to do so can have unintended consequences.  

In New York City, more police in neighborhoods hurt achievement and attendance for black boys.

One of the studies looked at the academic performance of students in high-crime neighborhoods in New York City that saw an influx of police officers instructed to make arrests for low-level offenses and conduct frequent searches from 2004 to 2012.

It found that young black boys from those neighborhoods saw test scores drop as a result of the increased police presence. Black male students as young as 11 saw those effects, which were even worse for older students, up to age 15. (The study does not have data for high school students, who might have been even more affected.)

The increased police presence did decrease violent crime in targeted neighborhoods — something that might be expected to help students do better in schools. But black boys were more frequently absent from school, by nearly 1.5 days a year, due to the policing program, potentially to avoid the threat of arrest in surrounding neighborhoods.

“Aggressive, broken-windows policing may have negative effects by undermining trust in authorities, including schools and teachers, and by leading to withdrawal and system avoidance,” write researchers Joscha Legewie and Jeffrey Fagan in the study, published in a peer-reviewed journal. “High rates of direct or indirect contact with police may also create stress and other health and emotional responses that undermine cognitive performance.”

The program had no effect for Hispanic students or black girls. Tellingly, white students were not included in the study because so few lived in targeted neighborhoods..

In Texas, hiring more school police hurt high school graduation and college attendance rates.

Meanwhile, the Texas study examines what happened when school districts won federal grants to hire police to work in schools between 1999 and 2008.

Students in middle or high schools that received a three-year grant were 1.7 percentage points less likely to graduate high school and 1.9 percentage points less likely to enroll in college, compared to similar students in the same district in other years.

It’s not clear what explains these results. Unlike in the New York City study, there was no indication that these declines were steeper for black students, or that the greater police presence meant students were disciplined more often in high school.

But there was evidence that more security led to more disciplinary infractions in middle school, particularly for low-level offenses and for black and Hispanic students.

Researcher Emily Weisburst says that might have long-term consequences.

“A student’s experience with school discipline at an early age has potential ramifications for high school graduation and college enrollment,” she wrote in the study, published in a peer-reviewed journal.

“Negative school discipline experiences could shape the way that students are perceived by teachers, school administrators, and peers, and may also affect a student’s confidence and attachment to school.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said that 17 students died in the Parkland shooting; it was 17 people, not all of whom were students.