Feds probing SRO program at Unit 4

Feds probing SRO program at Unit 4

CHAMPAIGN — On April 25, the Champaign school board renewed its $297,872 contract with the city's police department to keep officers in Unit 4 schools for another year.

Three weeks later, officials with the federal Department of Education spent two days meeting with district administrators while investigating that same School Resource Officer program.

The probe came in response to a 2014 complaint filed with the federal Office of Civil Rights by local activists and members of the Ministerial Alliance of Champaign-Urbana. The grievance alleges that Unit 4 discriminates against black students on the basis of race when it comes to making arrests or referring students to law enforcement for discipline.

The district says that's not the way the program works: Students are never referred to SROs for disciplinary action; rather, police handle criminal acts that involve students, whether they happen on school property or off it.

Champaign police have been active at all three middle schools and both high schools since the SRO program's inception in 2006. Since then, the district has publicly reported 417 at-school arrests, 357 of which involved black students.

Those numbers, says retired educator Terry Townsend, point to a problem. They're the basis of the complaint he filed in September 2014 in an effort to shield black students from the "school to prison pipeline."

"Our children must be protected," Townsend says now. "All of them."

The Office of Civil Rights responded to Townsend's complaint in January 2015 and launched an investigation into the Champaign school district. Last week, an OCR attorney, Michael O'Donnell, interviewed staff members on Monday and Tuesday "in order to better understand how the district implements its disciplinary policy," according to a Department of Education spokesperson.

O'Donnell also attended a community forum at New Free Will Baptist Church to hear concerns from Unit 4 residents about the district's approach to discipline.

O'Donnell said last week's visit was the "first of several." His office plans to continue its probe with focus group interviews and assessments of individual case files.

"We're looking at the school district intensively. ... We have investigations like this across the U.S., and we take it very seriously," O'Donnell said, addressing about 30 people gathered in the small church sanctuary for the public forum. During the nearly three-hour meeting, community members shared their own stories of unjust disciplinary action they say the district had taken against black students. Their accounts focused mostly on actions that led to the arrest of a child at school.

'A huge, huge problem'

Local youth minister Ingrid Johnson spoke at length about a black family she knew whose 12-year-old daughter had been arrested at school and the parents weren't notified.

Hattie Paulk, a minister and former director of the district's Family Information Center, spoke about an incident at Edison Middle School where she says a SRO threatened a black student who misbehaved during the school day.

Former school board candidate Alissia Young shared personal stories of times when her son was specifically targeted for expulsion when he wasn't at fault.

"Had we not known our rights and responsibilities as parents, he would've been expelled," she said. "When parents aren't involved and able to advocate, it becomes a huge, huge problem."

Community member Dante Locks, who works as a behavior specialist, said the biggest issue he has noticed with the SRO program is the lack of a connection between students and the police officers.

"They don't, overall, have a healthy, ongoing relationship with our kids," Locks said. "Kids know who's genuinely concerned about them; they can tell who's genuine for their wellbeing versus someone who could've been involved in some type of conflict with their family. They're not going to respond well to those individuals."

Wiegand: Progress made

The school district contends it has made considerable efforts to hold Champaign police accountable while working with students, especially over the last three years. During the summer of 2014, the school board asked the district to assemble an SRO evaluation committee, made up of community members, police officers and Unit 4 officials, and conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the entire program.

That led, in August 2014, to a memorandum of understanding between Unit 4 and Champaign police requiring SROs to meet monthly with their building principals. Officers are also required to fill out daily activity logs, allowing administrators and board members to see exactly how they spend their time at the schools.

The agreement also tasked officers with spending time in classrooms at least once a month, to educate students about their rights, says Unit 4 Superintendent Judy Wiegand.

Additionally, she said, the district has in the last three years developed a partnership with the Regional Planning Commission, which runs the Youth Assessment Center as an alternative method of helping students who have committed offenses that would've landed them straight in Juvenile Detention Center in years past.

"Now, we are able to assess students and see what services and supports are needed, versus going straight into the criminal justice system," Wiegand said.

This summer, Unit 4's Director of Achievement and Services, Orlando Thomas, will present to the school board an annual review of the program, including statistics of students arrested during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years. Thomas gave a similar review in January 2015, when he reported 19 students had been arrested during that school year's first semester. Total numbers for the 2014-15 school year were not available this week, according to Unit 4 spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart.

Teachers 84 percent white

Community members at the OCR public forum also expressed concern about the lack of diversity among teachers and administrators in Unit 4. Young said she didn't "have much faith that they've gotten very far" in recruiting and retaining a more diverse staff.

According to statistics from the state Board of Education, Champaign employs a more diverse teaching staff than most districts in the area — 7.8 percent black, 4.7 Asian and 3.1 percent Hispanic — but it's 84 percent white.

Since the 2010-11 school year, the percentage of minority staff in Unit 4 has seen a small but steady increase, according to Director of Human Resources Ken Kleber, growing from 23.3 percent to 26 percent in 2014-15.

Now that Illinois districts are able to recruit teachers from out of state, Unit 4 has made extra efforts to attend career fairs where it knows minority applicants will be present, Kleber said. And this summer, the district will host its first minority staff retreat, which will provide networking and professional development opportunities for those employees, he said.

Neither the district nor the Office of Civil Rights would comment on the timeline of the investigation. Wiegand called the interviews with O'Donnell productive and said she was optimistic the results would be positive for Unit 4.

"There's a long history here in Champaign, and it's hard sometimes to separate that from actual data," she said. "We're a district that's been doing a lot."

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Pointblank wrote on May 25, 2016 at 7:05 am
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The Ministerial Alliance of Champaign-Urbana's involvement is surprising and unusual. Pastors complaining about discipline?

Bystander wrote on May 25, 2016 at 8:05 am
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"...discriminates against black students on the basis of race,..." Oh please. Unit 4 need only show the Office of Civil Rights the reports. Arrests and suspensions are based on behavior, not race.

justthefactsmaam wrote on May 25, 2016 at 8:05 am

Pull the SROs out. See how that works out for you.

A Very Busy Mom wrote on May 25, 2016 at 9:05 am

If a student does something wrong, they should be held accountable - just as it works in the real world.

I undestand about tolerance and second chances but when there is no accountability that is when we end up with young adult criminals who shoot each other.

In the end we all want the same goal, our children to be active, responsible citizens in their community - and sometimes there needs to be intervention when they are younger to stop the pattern.

I don't care about race or gender, it is our job to help steer our children to adulthood - and it is not an easy job to do.  Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever had to do and some days I wish I didn't have to, but for my child to grow up and be a responsible adult it is my responsibility to make sure that he does what he is told, follows the rules and looks out for others. And if I need someone to intervene when I am not successul at parenting - then that is what will happen and it will give my child a different perspective on rules and growing up.

Cuthbert J. Twillie wrote on May 25, 2016 at 10:05 am

Betcha for those parents on the border line about the new HS, just got their decision made for them if the SRO got pulled out.


The mere presence of officers in the building deters or lessens the incident.  SRO leave?  Then guess what, the calls will get stacked and the officers will just look to see who is at fault and off to YDC they go,.


Problem solved.  

Bulldogmojo wrote on May 25, 2016 at 12:05 pm


How is it that this 'Ministerial Alliance of Champaign-Urbana' is operating in a public school district?? Keep religious lunacy out of secular and public paid entities!

Someone needs to address why Unit 4 is now putting in padded restraint rooms for volatile students. Maybe we need to focus on mental health and let the legal system and parents deal with the rest. If your kid is failing at school it's the YOUR fault not that of the teachers. If you don't take your kids education seriously it's your failure

cydnab wrote on May 25, 2016 at 4:05 pm

I will have to agree that is comes back to parenting.  When I was completing my graduate degree in the social services space, I did intern work in a setting where people were being discharged from the prison system.  I would say 80-90% of those individuals did not have the a relationship with one or both parents, especially the father.  I did not pursue that work professionally, but the issue that stuck in my mind was because of the lack of this family unit/abandonment issues in their past, the adolescent youth would go out and get themselves pregnant to have a child, just to have another human being that would love them.  Then the cycle would repeat because that child grew up in a fatherless home and himself would father another child, with zero consideration to the outcome of the child or its future well-being. Human beings are emotional entities that need proper care when they are developing, and the behavior you see is largely a result of not having that during development.  It is a cycle that needs to be addressed in the home before children even reach school age.  Restore the family unit and you will restore the society.  Period.

BruckJr wrote on May 25, 2016 at 5:05 pm

I feel for the students in Champaign schools who want to learn.  Do know that there are many alternatives to this environment.  Get out if you can.

pifffire wrote on June 01, 2016 at 3:06 pm

Definitey agree with many of the above said things. I attended Central HS for the majority of my high school education- luckily I was able to get out, but not many are. 

For teens that are interested in actually learning the best thing to do is get ahead as fast as possible. When one starts to take classes that are not the bare minimum requirement for graduation, disruptive behavior drops significantly in the classroom.