Chicago Public Schools focus on security

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Chicago Public Schools officials say they realize that unless their students are safe in school, they won’t learn.

Chicago Public Schools officials say they realize that unless their students are safe in school, they won’t learn.

That’s one reason why it increased its security budget to $8 million this school year from $6.5 million last school year. Upon hiring a new chief executive officer in 2009 it also hired a new security boss, Michael Shields.

Shields, a retired deputy superintendent from the Chicago Police Department, said students should be able to feel safe once on school grounds.

“My job is to make sure our students are safe and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to make that happen,” Shields, director of the Office of School Safety & Security for CPS, told the Defender. “We don’t want kids to be fearful while in school because it can take away from their productivity in class.”

During the 2008-09 school year there were 116,000 incidents recorded at CPS. Incidents range from a shouting match between students to a food fight in the cafeteria.

But the total number of “serious misconduct” incidents, which usually means an occurrence so bad, such as violence, that the student was either suspended or expelled, was 17,000, according to Shields.

There is a minimum of two Chicago police officers assigned to each high school.

And like Shields, who spent 23 years with CPD, Ron Huberman, chief executive officer for CPS, is also a former Chicago cop.

But CPS does not rely solely on police assistance when it comes to security for its 408,000 students, said Shields. It relies more on the 2,000 security guards on CPS payroll – with a starting salary of $26,000 – and the 6,200 cameras installed throughout the school district. There are an average of seven security guards at each high school.

And while the bulk of its security budget is spent on personnel costs, Shields, who earns $150,000 a year, said long term plans include using more cameras.

“Video surveillance is a lot more useful because security guards can only be in one place at a time. Cameras are helping us immensely. Plus, cameras can capture activity in the community, which is where most school incidents occur,” he said.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. awarded CPS a $2.5 million grant, which will be used to purchase more cameras.

“J.P. Morgan is the first major corporation to step for security at CPS and we thank them,” Shields said. “We are also reaching out to other corporations for help.”

Huberman said its security efforts are paying off.

“There were 143 CPS students shot last school year and this school year there were only 102, so violence incidents are down,” he said. “And none of these shootings took place on school grounds.”

CPS received $30 million in federal stimulus money to combat violence and Huberman added that among the things he plans to do is to make traveling to and from school more safer for students.

“We plan to spend $2 million to develop a safe passage program to make sure students are safe when traveling to and from school,” he told the Defender.

Additionally, CPS will award a $10 million contract to a community organization to assist it with conflict resolutions strategies, which could include in-school suspensions rather than at-home suspensions. The final $18 million will be used to create a Culture of Calm program at designated schools identified to have high incidents of violence. There are 38 schools targeted for the new program, many of them are on the South Side.

Shields said a lot of incidents of violence occur at bus routes where students from different schools ride the same bus.

“We have met with private school principals, (Chicago Transit Authority) officials and Chicago police, because many times students from various schools ride the same bus and that’s when problems often occur. These meetings resulted in us getting bus times for routes that we will share with principals and to make sure police are at these bus routes.”

In September near Christian Fenger Academy High School on the Far South Side, Derrion Albert, a 16 year-old honor student who was waiting at the bus stop to go home, was beaten to death with a wooden railroad tie after a fight broke out between youth from different neighborhoods.

CPS uses cameras and metal detectors at many of its high schools. Metal detectors are not used at elementary schools although handheld detectors are sometimes used. The average elementary school has one security guard assigned to it.

One community organizer, Westow Miller, executive director of Neighborhood Watch, a parent patrol group, said more security guards and metal detectors are needed at elementary schools.

“There are more violent incidents occurring at elementary schools than people hear about,” he said.

Earlier this month a 12 year-old boy who attends Bethune Elementary School on the West Side was caught bringing an unloaded gun with ammunition to school.

But CPS officials said eventually it would like to reduce the number of metal detectors at schools. At Defender press time, CPS officials did not know the total number of metal detectors in use.

“Our goal is to have fewer metal detectors at schools,” said Monique Bond, director of communications for CPS.

Some schools have more, depending on the number of students, building size and the school’s security needs, Shields added.

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