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Student Arrest Records A ‘Disturbing Mess’ At Illinois School Districts

Former School Resource Officer Shelly Domingeuz with students inside Jefferson Middle School in Champaign, Ill.

Twenty-one Champaign Unit 4 students were arrested during the 2013-14 school year — 19 of them were Black — according to documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. During the 2015-16 school year, 17 students were arrested — of which 15 were Black.

But the federal government thinks there were no arrests. 

That’s because the district reported to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that not a single student was arrested over the course of multiple school years dating back to 2013. 

Every other school year, the Office for Civil Rights collects student arrests and law enforcement referrals data — among other discipline related data points as part of its Civil Rights Data Collection program. The data is broken up by whether the student has a disability, their gender and their racial or ethnic background.

The district has not accurately reported arrest and law enforcement referral data to the federal government for the 2013-14, 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, a spokesperson for Unit 4 confirmed, and they attributed it to the manner in which the data is stored. (The U.S. Department of Education has yet to release data collected for the 2017-18 school year.) 

Felipe Menanteau, an Urbana School District 116 parent who opposes police in schools, says he’s frustrated that student arrest data is not more readily available, and that the numbers the district provided contradict what they reported to the federal government. 

“Certainly, it looks like they don’t want us to know. They’re not making the data easy to access for us,” Menanteau says.

Urbana District 116 provided arrest and referral data following a FOIA request, however, the information provided does not match what the district reported to the federal government for the 2015-16 school year. (The district said it possessed no responsive records for the 2013-14 school year.) In the documents obtained via FOIA, the district reported that six students were arrested during the 2015-16 school year, and two were referred to law enforcement. The records provided did not break down those arrested and referred to law enforcement by gender or race. 

In their report to the federal government for the 2015-16 school year, the district reported that 21 students were arrested — 13 of whom were Black — and 30 were referred to law enforcement — 16 of whom were Black —  for the 2015-16 school year. 

Urbana school officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Menanteau says he’s not an activist — he’s an academic and works for the University of Illinois as an astrophysicist. He says he became more involved in his children’s school district about two years ago, after the previous superintendent was fired following the implementation of a restorative justice discipline model, which focuses on conflict resolution over strictly punitive measures. And then, late last year, the district’s Board of Education voted to expand the police presence in its middle and high schools to a full-time school resource officer in each. Menanteau worries that a larger police presence in schools will negatively impact Black and Brown children. Menanteau is Latino and has two children in the district.

“There’s such a body of research telling you that SROs are not the tool to keep the peace, they’re not the tool to make schools safer,” he says. “They’re not the tool to make Black and Brown kids feel safer.”

No data, no control 

Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says these kinds of data discrepancies are not unusual — they’re the norm when it comes to student arrest and referral data. Jordan is one of the co-authors of the ACLU report, “Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff is Harming Students,” which analyzes data reported by districts to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Jordan says regular, biennial data collection regarding discipline, including student interaction with law enforcement, began in 2009 under the Obama administration. Any school or school entity that receives federal funding is required to submit a report as part of this collection process. 

“The overall purpose of it is to be able to monitor in some broad way what is going on in schools for purposes of ensuring fair treatment of kids,” Jordan says. Accurate data will help school administrators understand whether Black girls, for example, are more likely to be arrested than white girls. Jordan says students of color are, in general, more likely to be arrested than white students. In districts that are mostly white students, he says, in general, poorer white students are more likely to be arrested. 

But, “in the aggregate, when you add up the numbers… the kid that is most likely to be arrested is a Black boy with a disability in almost every state in this country.” 

During the 2015-16 school year, there were 86 incidents in Champaign Unit 4 schools that resulted in police involvement. Of those, 17 resulted in arrest, while 22 resulted in no charges being filed. Another 47 students were referred to the county’s Youth Assessment Center, which offers at-risk youth and families alternatives to prosecution. Of those 86 incidents, 67 involved Black youth. 

Jordan says poor data collection is a “longstanding problem” that the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged under the Obama administration. The previous administration requested large school districts resubmit their arrest and law enforcement referral data because the initial numbers submitted were too low to be credible. But Jordan says the federal government doesn’t have the resources to fact check the numbers for the tens of thousands of school districts and other educational entities that submit data to the Office for Civil Rights. 

“It’s not just a mess — it’s a disturbing mess from the perspective of how you run a school and how you address the needs of young people,” Jordan says. 

“If you don’t know how many young people are arrested, what they’re arrested for, if you don’t have a clear sense of what the practices are… then you’re not going to have any control over, you know, what happens to young people. You’re not going to know to what extent administrators and school officials are doing the right thing and law enforcement is doing the right thing.” 

In other words, Jordan says, school administrators won’t know if children of color, particularly those with disabilities, are being disproportionately harmed by police in schools. 

Illinois Newsroom submitted FOIA requests to multiple school districts across the state seeking arrest and law enforcement referral data. Out of two dozen school districts, 15 reported that they did not possess any records related to student arrests or law enforcement referrals — that’s despite the fact that they are required to report this data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights every other school year. Some districts referred Illinois Newsroom to their local police department for such data, including Plainfield School District 202, which is located in the Chicago suburbs. 

After initially denying the request for student arrest records, Plainfield Police stated to the Attorney General’s Public Access Bureau that they didn’t maintain such records. The Moline-Coal Valley Unified School District 40, located near the northwest border of Iowa and Illinois, also stated that its police department maintains student arrest data. Upon request, the Moline Police Department provided records but did not break them down by year, making it impossible to know how many students were arrested in what school year. 

‘The record keeping could be better’

School Resource Officer (SRO) Kip Heinle says he rarely takes students to jail. Heinle is the SRO for Triad High School, which is located about 25 minutes east of St. Louis in southern Illinois. He’s also the communications director for the Illinois School Resource Officers Association. Heinle is employed by the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, which denied a request for student arrest records for Alton Community Unit School District 11.

“Very rarely does a kid ever leave here in handcuffs,” Heinle says. “I would say 95% of the kids I deal with as a police officer, I release right to their parents, (and) either refer them back to the juvenile court system, or let them do (a) diversion program.”

Heinle says a school administrator asks him to count how many students he’s arrested on an annual basis. He takes notes when he interacts in a policing capacity with a student, he says.

“So I can just go through my notes and look, and I can see, and I usually will indicate on my notes if I did a referral, if I took someone physically to jail,” Heinle says. But he acknowledges that this is his system, and he’s not sure how other SROs do it, or how schools without SROs quantify and track student arrests and referrals.

The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates that there are between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs working in schools nationwide, and the National Center for Education Statistics reported that between the 2005–06 and 2017–18 school years, the percentage of public schools that reported having one or more security staff present at school at least once a week increased from 42% to 61%.

Heinle says he usually documents interactions with students that “fall into a law thing,” including if he has to physically restrain a student. But Heinle says the vast majority of his interactions with students do not result in documentation. 

For example, there have been occasions when he’s assisted school staff with students with disabilities.

“They’re flailing their arms, trying to hit their aides, so I’ll just walk up to them, and I might grab their arm and say, ‘hey, let’s go back to class.’ And stuff like that I don’t do a report on.”

Heinle says he’s built relationships with his students, and they typically cooperate with his directives. About a month ago, Heinle says he was called in to assist police with a former student of his, who was threatening to jump off the roof of a building. He says the former student specifically requested Heinle, because he had been their SRO.

“It’s stuff like that, that makes you feel good,” Heinle says. “That maybe you did make a difference in somebody’s life to where —  and I’m not saying they would have jumped off the roof and killed themself if I wouldn’t have shown up —  I think it made it easier that I did show up. And I was able to talk to the person, and he was able to get the help he needed.”

Heinle says he doesn’t believe police and schools are intentionally obscuring student arrest data, but “I do think the record keeping could be better.”

A shield from accountability 

Jordan, with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says poor record keeping presents a serious problem, and it shields both school districts and police departments from accountability. He says one thing that could help: if the state were to require school districts report this data on a regular basis, and do so in the same manner in which they’re required to report to the U.S Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. 

Currently, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) doesn’t track student arrests and law enforcement referrals. 

“Districts currently report student arrest data only to the U.S. Department of Education through the Office of Civil Rights Data Collection, which ISBE publishes on our Illinois Report Card,” Jackie Matthews, a spokesperson for ISBE wrote via email “State law does not currently require districts to submit this data directly to ISBE. However, the administration is committed to full transparency in this critical area and we are open to working with the General Assembly to strengthen reporting requirements,” 

In general, Jordan says policing in schools is, “not a highly regulated activity,” and that contributes to the lack of clear and consistent data around student arrests and referrals to law enforcement. 

“Even if you want to take the position that all of these arrests are for legitimate reasons, you still should not be hiding it,” Jordan says. “You should put it out there, and then we can see.”

A lack of data also hinders the ability of communities and school districts to have informed conversations about the role, value and effects of police in schools. 

“It needs to start with some honest reporting about the degree of contact, the nature of contact between students and law enforcement, (the) types of incidents and what the consequences are,” Jordan says. “So having accurate data and doing accurate monitoring, and placing this kind of information in a location that’s accessible to the public is a critical first step.”

Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines

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