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Photo of young man at a rally outside the James Thompson center in Chicago, holding a sign above his head that reads: Police Free School, Communities, Chicago

How one high school organized historic victory advancing their fight for racial justice

After the murder of George Floyd, it became clear that there was growing urgency to address the anti-Black racism present in the school system and within our own school, Back of the Yards College Prep (BYOCP). Many of our teachers suspended their regular lessons to provide space in our classes for students to share their feelings and experience with police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how racism and anti-Blackness manifest themselves at our school.

Teachers heard from many students about how having an armed officer in the building was a glaring example of the over-policing of students of color, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the fact that our society and schools see our students of color as potential criminals before it sees them as human beings full of potential.

Union meeting convened

We convened a Union meeting to open a space for discussion and think through our responsibility as educators to address the movement and support student organizing for the right to be free from policing at school. To help build our own knowledge, we organized reading and discussion groups that over 20 staff members decided to participate in over the summer.

We also convened a virtual meeting after school and invited students across grade levels who were looking for a space to connect with one another about the movement and participate through taking informed action. This group of students initially proposed we hold a virtual town hall, which they offered to facilitate, for all students and staff to learn about and discuss racism in schools. Unfortunately, our administration rejected their proposal, postponing the event until the fall.

Last summer, when CPS instructed LSC’s to decide—on very short notice—whether to retain police officers in schools, a number of BYOCP teachers and staff vocally supported the officers and advocated that they remain. Despite a few dissenting opinions from other staff members, and a lack of consultation with students and parents, the LSC voted overwhelmingly to retain our officers at that time.

Half of teachers sign on

This year, we reached out to discuss the issue with a number of staff members one-on-one, and we wrote and circulated a letter among staff and recently graduated students that received over 300 signatures. Ultimately, half of BOYCP teachers and staff indicated they thought our officers should be removed.

Likewise, current and former students had been organizing through June and July, and in the days leading up to the LSC meeting, they put together multiple actions including a rally and art- making party to protest the police presence in BOYCP. They also collected detailed testimonials from fellow students and participated in the public comment period of two different LSC meetings on the topic.

Students shared their personal experiences with police violence, the fear and intimidation they feel when they have to pass or interact with an armed officer at school, and the myriad studies demonstrating that police do not prevent violence in schools. These meetings, protests, and the thoughtfulness and sincerity of student activists had the effect of convincing three parent LSC members, both serving community members, and one teacher member to vote to remove police from BOYCP.

Historic decision

We are extremely proud of our staff and parents for making this historic decision. We know it is the right move for our students and another step forward in our fight for racial justice. That fight does not end with the dismissal of our SROs, but it does represent a victory for student-led activism and has invigorated their demands for substantive change at BOCYP and across CPS.

Alexander Rolnick teaches social studies and Angelo Cavoto teaches chemistry at Back of Yards College Prep High School.