BYLINE: Tom Hanlon

Since 1966, Chicago Public Schools has had a visible police presence in its schools. Beginning with the 2024-25 school year, that no longer will be true.

The Chicago School Board voted unanimously in February to no longer have Chicago Police serve as school resource officers (SROs).

That decision can now be considered in light of findings from a study conducted by Hinze-Pifer with researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and the Center for Childhood Resilience at Lurie Children’s Hospital. Results of that study were released on June 26.

“We looked at what happened when Chicago Public Schools began removing SROs in the 2020-21 school year,” says Rebecca Hinze-Pifer, “and found no evidence of detrimental consequences.”

Hinze-Pifer, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s Education Policy, Organization and Leadership Department, has conducted research as an affiliated researcher with the UChicago Consortium for nearly a decade on a number of projects related to building supportive school environments.

“The UChicago Consortium has had a long-standing research-practice partnership with Chicago Public Schools since 1990,” Hinze-Pifer says. “They’re a well-respected entity that does very high-quality, actionable research that helps practitioners and policymakers better understand the complexities of the educational system in Chicago and as it applies to the whole country.”

The SRO study is part of a larger, ongoing study of Chicago’s Whole School Safety approach involving researchers from the UChicago Consortium, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Center for Childhood Resilience.

A More Holistic Approach to Safety

“SROs are just one type of staff in schools,” Hinze-Pifer says. “Principals, teachers, social workers, they all work together to create a sense of safety.” Having police in schools makes some students feel less safe, she adds.

“Over the last 15 to 20 years, schools have recognized students need additional support, beyond quality instruction, to be fully present and able to learn,” Hinze-Pifer says. “It’s developed to the point where many schools do provide significant social services. In addition to shifting away from school-based police, Chicago has sought to conceptualize safety more holistically. When we think about school-based police, we usually think about physical safety. And that remains a key pillar in the whole school safety framework. But they added emotional safety and supportive relationships to their conception of safety.”

Previously, most Chicago Public Schools high schools had two SROs present in the schools. The SRO study found that while high-level discipline infractions were increasing in most schools, the schools that chose to remove SROs entirely held relatively steady.

“We shouldn’t necessarily attribute that solely to the SROs, though,” Hinze-Pifer cautions. “Many things happened over the four-year period of the study. But the data reflects that schools that did choose to remove school-based police did so without any measurable negative consequences in terms of student disciplinary infractions or perceptions of safety.”

She also notes that schools that retained both SROs were more likely to serve predominantly Black students, tended to be smaller, and had higher levels of suspensions than schools that removed both SROs. Also, students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, students who were not English Learners, and students in special education were more likely to be in schools that retained at least one SRO.

Redirecting Funds for Safety

Until the Chicago School Board voted to remove schools’ SROs, local school councils had the power to decide whether to maintain two SROs or to cut back to one or none. “They were also given the ability to redirect some money,” Hinze-Pifer says. “So, the money previously spent on school-based police could be spent instead on socioemotional staffing such as social workers, on security officers, or on training and other resources for the school.”

Hinze-Pifer notes that this study is the first in a series of studies connected to the CPS Whole School Safety framework. “We’ll have several studies coming out of the UChicago Consortium over the course of the next year that speak to a variety of different issues and are focused on this holistic conception of safety,” she says. “One will share the perspective of principals and other educators on this whole school safety process, including the removal of SROs. Another will look at what safety and school climate spending choices schools made in lieu of using funds for SROs, and what the differences are in terms of those types of choices. And the final study will share results from focus groups with high school students during the 2024-25 school year about their experiences with and perceptions of school culture and climate.”

Impacts of Nearby Homicide Study

An important, related study that Hinze-Pifer worked on was released two weeks ago. This study, also published by the UChicago Consortium on School Research, looked at whether and how schools may have mitigated students’ academic impacts of living in proximity to homicide.

It’s a topic that many school communities grapple with, as about 20% of Chicago’s students live in proximity to homicide each year. “Proximity to homicide,” in terms of this study, means a homicide within about two blocks of the student’s home.

“We did find, unsurprisingly, that living in proximity to homicide has negative consequences for students,” Hinze-Pifer says. “But the important thing we found was that this was not universally true. In some schools there did not seem to be, on average, negative changes in students’ educational outcomes.”

Impact Influenced by School's Climate

That negative impact may be mitigated by the school’s climate, she says. “We saw this particularly in measures related to interpersonal relationships with the adults in the building, with students’ sense of belonging in the school,” Hinze-Pifer says. “We also saw it in measures of trust amongst adults within the building—teachers’ trust with one another, teachers’ trust with the principal, teachers’ sense of shared mission and goals for the school. All were related to the school’s ability to support students.”

The study looked at four outcomes: test scores, grades, attendance, and behavioral infractions. “We found that a sizable minority of schools did not see worsening of attendance, behavioral infractions, grades, or test scores,” Hinze-Pifer says. “In particular, we found that for behavioral infractions, there was quite a bit of variation in students’ outcomes by school.”

Again, Hinze-Pifer cautions that just because students were experiencing sizable negative changes in the aftermath of a nearby homicide, that doesn’t mean schools weren’t mitigating some of those consequences.

Trust, Supportive Relationships, and Coordinated Help Are Critical

In schools that did experience success in alleviating the negative consequences, “we heard from interviews with educators and school staff that there were strong supportive and trusting relationships between educators and students,” Hinze-Pifer says. “We also heard that those relationships grew out of a sustained organizational effort toward relationship building. There is no one thing a school can do; rather, it’s the result of years of commitment to building supportive environments for young people to learn in, to building systems of support.”

In schools that were more successful at reducing the negative consequences of a nearby homicide, educators emphasized the importance of a coordinated system of additional help, along a variety of different dimensions, for students when they needed it, she says.

“Even in these schools that seemed to be doing well, the educators reported that it was very intensive work that needs more resources,” Hinze-Pifer says. “Building responsive communities is not a one-shot deal. It requires significant resources and a sustained effort. We have to respect and appreciate the hard work of the educators in the schools that we worked in supporting their kids.”