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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A resolution to a five-year-old Title IX complaint

Posted By on 11.27.18 at 06:00 AM

Olivia Ortiz in 2018 - COURTESY OLIVIA ORTIZ
  • courtesy Olivia Ortiz
  • Olivia Ortiz in 2018

I first met Olivia Ortiz in the spring of 2015, which was three years after she'd accused her then-boyfriend of sexually assaulting her when she was a second-year student at the University of Chicago, and two years after she'd filed a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights about the way the university had handed the accusation. The linchpin of Ortiz's complaint had been that Dean Susan Art, the administrator who had handled her initial accusation, had offered to resolve the issue through an informal mediation session between Ortiz and her ex-boyfriend, after which she told Ortiz that the university didn't consider her complaint sexual assault. Only afterward did Ortiz learn that informal mediation wasn't an appropriate disciplinary measure for an accusation of sexual assault, both according to the university's own policy and two "Dear Colleague" letters issued by the Department of Education, one in 2001 and one in 2011.

Art has since retired and has not responded to the Reader's request for comment by e-mail or through the university. University officials have been willing to discuss the school's policies but said in a statement: "In view of the limitations imposed by federal law that protects student privacy, the University cannot comment on administrative processes concerning individual students."

When Ortiz filed her initial complaint in April 2013, she was told that OCR was working its way through a substantial backlog of cases going back to 2011, but that the goal was to have a decision within 180 days. Around the same time, several other U of C students filed Title IX complaints, and OCR decided to look at them all together, in a systemic investigation of how U of C handled accusations of sexual assault.

By the time I talked to Ortiz two years later, she was still waiting for an answer from OCR. She'd also withdrawn from school three times, twice because of mental health issues related to her assault and from previously-undiagnosed manic-depression and once because of online harassment. She'd also become an activist for sexual assault survivors' rights and was part of a group of students who had applied pressure to the university to change the way it received and processed sexual assault complaints.

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Monday, September 24, 2018

Here's hoping that the myth of the bad teacher is finally laid to rest

Posted By on 09.24.18 at 06:00 AM

Karen Lewis, then-president of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaking at CTU rally outside the Thompson Center, April 1, 2016 - ONE ILLINOIS/TED COX
  • One Illinois/Ted Cox
  • Karen Lewis, then-president of the Chicago Teachers Union, speaking at CTU rally outside the Thompson Center, April 1, 2016

If I'm reading the cards right, 2018 will go down in history as the year the  myth of the bad teacher finally, mercifully, and hopefully was consigned to the dustbin of history.

I say hopefully, because some myths die hard, especially when the powers that be—and that would be you, Governor Rauner—have much to gain by promoting them.

But let's focus on the good news.

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Monday, July 2, 2018

When local school councils go rogue, can anything be done?

Posted By on 07.02.18 at 06:00 AM

A student voices his frustration to King College Prep's local school council chair Kwesi Kuntu outside the school in May. - PAT NABONG
  • Pat Nabong
  • A student voices his frustration to King College Prep's local school council chair Kwesi Kuntu outside the school in May.

By Emmanuel Camarillo and Hannah Hayes

On a spring afternoon inside the cafeteria of South Loop Elementary School, parents filled the small lunch tables for a local school council meeting. Before official business began, Jason Easterly, a longtime member, stood up and abruptly resigned his post.

Days before the meeting, outrage over the LSC’s attempt to renew principal Tara Shelton’s contract had escalated to the point where Easterly’s home address had been posted on Twitter. "I can't guarantee the safety of my family anymore," he said. "As such, I am resigning as a member of this LSC."

It was a dramatic moment in the controversy over Shelton's contract, which the LSC sought to renew in her third year rather than the customary fourth. The situation in Chicago's South Loop neighborhood was already volatile: The district announced in April that nearby National Teachers Academy would close and be converted into a high school, while younger NTA students would be moved to South Loop Elementary by fall 2019. Some NTA parents contended that the early contract renewal was meant to exclude their voices from the principal selection process.

But did the LSC's actions amount to a violation of law? And if so, whose responsibility is it to police this situation? It's a murky area for Chicago's local school councils, a unique form of local governance under which elected volunteer boards choose principals and make budget decisions at many CPS schools. It calls into question whether the structure—which was meant to give local communities more control over their schools—is accomplishing what it set out to do.

When the state passed the Chicago School Reform Act in 1989, creating the LSC system, there was a lot of energy in the community for school reform. Mayor Harold Washington had galvanized Chicagoans into a citywide summit on the issue, and the first LSC elections were incredibly popular, with 227,262 Chicagoans voting on 17,256 candidates. The Reform Act had included public and private funding to recruit candidates and train them.

According to Pauline Lipman, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has followed and written about LSCs since their inception, Chicago’s LSCs collectively represent "the largest elected body of people of color of any elected body in the country." However, Lipman says that LSCs "never fully reached their full potential because they never had the support they need. [Those serving on a council should get time off work to go to educational conferences, have professional development—they're making important decisions.

Enthusiasm for LSCs has waned over the years. Although statistics for the most recent election are not yet available, in 2016 only 73,369 people voted, and 395 out of 514 schools didn’t have enough candidates to form a full council. As participation and funding has decreased, it has become harder to stick to the rules, current and former LSC members say.

"I'll be honest, sometimes I didn't remember what the rules were," said a former parent representative at a Bridgeport elementary school who asked not to be named. "One time we got in trouble because an [Office of] LSC Relations representative came by our meeting."

The LSC had failed to post the meeting's agenda on the school’s entryway, and the doors were locked, both violations of the state's Open Meetings Act, which LSCs are supposed to follow. "So he came in there and really let us have it," said the ex-LSC member. "He pretty much declared our meeting invalid."

The official just happened to stop by that meeting. "There's not as many as there used to be, so they're not going to as many LSC meetings," the former LSC member said. In 2014, budget records show that the office had 20 employees, but by 2018 that number had been reduced to 12.

A CPS representative can steer a meeting in the right direction, but according to the former Bridgeport LSC member, a former science teacher and now education activist, LSCs usually aren't penalized for those violations. "I have not heard of any LSCs being punished or reprimanded. I have never heard of that," she said.

Then there's the matter of whether an LSC has really crossed the line or not. In the case of South Loop Elementary School, though state statutes say that LSCs should work on contract renewals in a principal's fourth year at the school, nothing in the law prohibits an LSC from renewing it earlier. Since the LSC ultimately withdrew its motion to renew the contract early, however, the question was never resolved. (CPS officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment on how often LSCs have been found to have violated rules or what happens if they do.)

That doesn't stop a school's community members from speaking up when they think there’s a miscarriage of justice. At the April meeting, one NTA parent told the LSC she "was confused and hurt" when she heard contract talks were already under way.

Victoria Dietrich, who attended South Loop Elementary as a child, said, "People should know why the principal evaluation process was accelerated," adding that "moves like that are going to look suspicious because it’s an election year." Though the LSC was never reprimanded for the contract renewal, the South Loop/NTA merger remains under scrutiny. A group of NTA parents filed suit this month to stop it, alleging that the school district based its decision on racially discriminatory metrics.

Several current and former LSC members point to training as a main issue for LSCs. According to Jill Wohl, founding board member of grassroots education group Raise Your Hand and a former LSC member, funding for training "has almost all but evaporated" in recent years.

According to its website, CPS offers in-person sessions for a couple of the nine LSC trainings required, and all are available online. New LSC members (elected in April) have until December to complete training.

Cassandra Chandler, a former LSC parent representative at King College Prep, said CPS needs to be more proactive. "They leave it up to each individual to figure out how to complete the trainings," she said. "There’s not a way to enforce that people complete those trainings."

Early this year, King's LSC voted not to extend its principal's contract, and parents alleged that it was done without community input. Chandler became disillusioned with her fellow LSC members, calling their actions "underhanded." So she went to the Office of LSC Relations to check whether they had completed their training. According to Chandler, the official told her “if somebody doesn’t complete all of the training there are really no repercussions for that.” However, another group of parents filed a Freedom of Information request and discovered that half of the LSC members had not completed all of their training, according to newly elected parent representative Natasha Erskine. The office's website states that LSC members may be removed by the Chicago Board of Education if they haven’t completed training—but, Wohl said, if the district purged LSC members for not complying with training, "hardly anyone would be left standing."

CPS also did not respond to questions on how many LSC members have completed training or whether there are any consequences for LSC members who fail to complete it.

At King, as was the case at South Loop Elementary, the LSC didn't technically violate any rules; the council posted notice of its meeting to vote on the principal’s contract within the required time limit, although it was during CPS’s winter break. "While it wasn't an issue of the LSC doing things illegally, many parents felt the LSC could have been more transparent," said Marcellus Moore, the community representative at the time.

In several meetings that followed, the LSC chair refused to put the principal vote back on the agenda despite student protests and requests from other LSC members to reconsider, and frequently put public comment last, which critics saw as an attempt to quash their voices. The controversy attracted the attention of Guillermo Montes de Oca, the director of CPS's Office of LSC Relations, who attended a meeting in May. De Oca told the frustrated crowd that it was not within his office's authority to interfere in LSC business, as nothing it had done was illegal. "We recommended they give it [the decision] to the new council, but they said no thank you," said Montes de Oca.

While conflicts within schools, LSCs, and the communities they represent are not rare, they’re not as common as people might think. "A well-functioning LSC is really boring, and that's why they don't make the news," says Michael Scott, the community representative at Murray Language Academy, a magnet school in Hyde Park.

Scott, who was also an LSC chair at William H. Ray Elementary school when he served as a parent representative, says the key to functioning well is broadening community participation. He points to the principal selection process at Ray in 2008 when the longtime principal retired. "We had 21 parents and teachers on that committee, and while the LSC ultimately made the decision, the process was driven by a much larger group."

But when community members don't believe their concerns are being taken seriously, as was the case at King College Prep, they have minimal recourse apart from showing up at the polls and voting those LSC members out. That's what happened at King this April. There all but one member was replaced, but it was already too late for supporters of the principal who’d been voted out, since control remains in the hands of the old LSC’s members until their terms expire in July.

Caleb Mitchell, a junior at King, spoke passionately to de Monrwa Oca after one of the LSC's many contentious meetings: "Why can’t you do something? This is so wrong!"

"This is democracy," Montes de Oca explained. "You voted them in and you trusted them with this decision. Then when you don’t like what they do, you vote them out. And that’s what you did."

This report was produced by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Alicia Swiz wants to make you a better feminist—by taking her online course

Posted By on 06.21.18 at 01:00 PM

Alicia Swiz hosting Feminist Happy Hour Galentine's Day 2018 - STEPHANIE JENSEN
  • Stephanie Jensen
  • Alicia Swiz hosting Feminist Happy Hour Galentine's Day 2018

Alicia Swiz is a feminist. She's also a writer, a performer, and an educator who uses her various platforms to initiate conversations about women's issues, intersectionality, and the representation of gender in media. Now, thanks to her recently released online course, potential students don't have to be enrolled in college to learn from her.

After receiving her master's degree in women's and gender studies from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Swiz began teaching at Alamance Community College in Graham, North Carolina. In 2010, she moved to Chicago intending to find more opportunities to perform and to explore more creative ways to create dialogues about issues related to gender.

Since then, Swiz has become an important figure in the Chicago feminist community. Her writing has been featured in a number of local outlets, including a roundtable discussion on the importance of intersectionality in feminism for the Reader. She's also the cofounder of Chicago's local chapter of Shout Your Abortion, a network created to empower people to share their experiences with abortion, and the creator of SlutTalk, an organization that raises awareness of slut shaming and encourages sex positivity through performances, workshops, and social media.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Distinguished CPS principal resigns after threats, controversy over anti-police speaker

Posted By on 06.19.18 at 06:00 AM

Mary Beth Cunat (inset) has resigned from her job as principal at Wildwood Elementary School. - MAYA DUKMASOVA
  • Maya Dukmasova
  • Mary Beth Cunat (inset) has resigned from her job as principal at Wildwood Elementary School.

A turbulent year ended for principal Mary Beth Cunat when, two weeks before the last day of class, she announced her resignation from Wildwood Elementary School on the far northwest side. She made the decision in the wake of parent outrage—and even threats—after she brought an anti-police speaker to the school.

Cunat's decision came as a shock to many parents, who praised her leadership over an eight-year tenure at the top-ranked CPS school.

"It is with a sad and happy heart I say good-bye," Cunat wrote in an open letter to the students on June 6, her last day at the school. "I could not bear to do it in person as my heart was breaking with love, joy, and appreciation for each and every one of you as I looked at your faces today. It is time for me to go, but you are in good hands and the school is positive and strong."

What led to Cunat's abrupt decision isn't just the story of what's gone on at the elite CPS elementary school over the last year, but a symptom of the culture war raging throughout the city and the country around racism and policing—one whose battlefields are on social media and in the classroom as much as they are on the streets and in the City Council chambers.

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

826CHI's Teen Writers Studio amplifies the voices of Chicago’s youth

Posted By on 06.14.18 at 06:00 AM

The cover art of I Will Hold You Like a Bible - KRIS EASLER
  • Kris Easler
  • The cover art of I Will Hold You Like a Bible

The Chicago high school students enrolled in 826CHI's Teen Writers Studio aren't afraid to learn from each other. "Everyone is welcoming and willing to help each other grow and learn," says 11th-grader Stephanie R. of her experience in the program. For fellow 11th-grader Kara K., being a part of the encouraging environment at the Writers Studio has helped her become more confident in her skills and given her a community to engage in discussions over difficult, but relevant topics, like gun violence. "I always feel safe to express myself at 826CHI," she says.

On Monday at a special event at the Poetry Foundation, Stephanie, Kara, and their fellow members of the Teen Writers Studio will release a chapbook of their poems and short stories created over the course of the 2017-'18 school year entitled I Will Hold You Like a Bible.

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Friday, June 8, 2018

The pattern to Rahm's sexual predator, filthy schools, and special ed scandals

Posted By on 06.08.18 at 06:00 AM

  • Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Just a few hours after Mayor Rahm officially apologized for the sex predator scandal that's hit Chicago Public Schools, three of the city's leading school beat reporters joined for the monthly talk show Mick Dumke and I host at the Hideout.

The latest wrong was uncovered by the Tribune in an investigation that found "widespread mishandling of student sexual abuse and rapes."

Wow, just writing that sentence is upsetting.

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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Dealing with slaughter in the schools, Congress should follow the example of John Wayne

Posted By on 05.24.18 at 06:00 AM

Texas governor Gregg Abbott hosted a roundtable discussion on school safety at the capitol in Austin earlier this week in response to last week's shooting in Santa Fe. - AP PHOTOS
  • AP Photos
  • Texas governor Gregg Abbott hosted a roundtable discussion on school safety at the capitol in Austin earlier this week in response to last week's shooting in Santa Fe.

Instead of condemning lawmakers who refuse to make laws that might reduce the slaughter of schoolchildren, we critics of these legislators should put ourselves in their shoes. They have children of their own—they can imagine the anguish of parents who send their kids off in the morning with lunch bags and retrieve them in the afternoon in body bags. They have no more use than we do for the sullen, misfit killers; like the rest of us, they wish them gone. But there's that devilish Second Amendment, to which they’re philosophically attached—not to mention politically and financially. You don't knock down the pillars holding up a civilization and not expect the ceiling to land on all our heads. Children, however much we love them, are more expendable than the rights we hold dear. There are millions of kids, but only ten sentences to the Bill of Rights.

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Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Parents, community clash over new principal selection at King College Prep

Posted By on 05.02.18 at 04:44 PM

Kwesi Kuntu, chair of the local school council for King College Prep, bangs the gavel for order at the April 27 meeting. - HANNAH HAYES
  • Hannah Hayes
  • Kwesi Kuntu, chair of the local school council for King College Prep, bangs the gavel for order at the April 27 meeting.

Tensions are high at King College Prep, a selective enrollment high school in Kenwood, after the school community voted in April to replace the majority of its local school council (LSC) members over its January decision to not renew principal David Narain's contract.

Feelings were so strong over his dismissal that six parents and two community representatives banded together and ran as an unofficial slate in the April 19 local school council election. All eight candidates on the slate won, and three of the four sitting LSC members were voted out. The new members won’t be seated until July, however, so the current members, far from being lame ducks, remain charged with selecting the new principal. King will host a principal candidates' forum tonight. On May 7 the LSC will vote on the new principal.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Lawmakers push for better training for cops in schools

Posted By on 05.01.18 at 04:00 AM

  • Chicago Police Facebook

Police officers who work in Chicago Public schools and other districts across the state could be required to get special training under a proposed bill moving forward in the Illinois legislature, while another bill would give funds to schools that hire behavioral or mental health counselors to help with discipline.

The bills come in the wake of scrutiny about the role of police in schools and as police hope to improve relations with Chicago youth.

Last year, a City Bureau and Reader investigation by Yana Kunichoff tallied myriad misconduct allegations and settlements involving police in Chicago Public Schools. The reporting showed that the approximately 250 Chicago Police Department officers who patrol school hallways had little oversight either from CPS officials or police brass, creating a confusing mandate as to what, exactly, a police officer’s role in schools should be.

Another report issued by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law also raised questions about the role of police in schools—among them, whether Chicago’s students become perennial police targets in the name of making schools safer. 

Police reform advocates are now poised to achieve their goal of required training for any school-based police officer across Illinois.

SB 2925 passed the Illinois Senate last week without opposition. The measure would require youth-specific training for the first time for every jurisdiction that seeks to put officers in schools. While some Illinois cities and towns require their own training, Chicago officers placed in public schools haven’t had such training mandated since 2006. (CPS also employs security guards who are subject to school-specific training standards.)

“Without youth-specific training, officers will resort to what they have been trained to do on the streets: make arrests,” Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, an attorney with the Shriver Center, told City Bureau last year.

But when SB 2925 was initially filed, law enforcement advocacy groups and Chicago officials lined up to oppose it. The Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, Illinois Sheriffs Association and Chicago Public Schools formally filed their opposition to the measure when it was introduced by Democratic state senator Kimberly A. Lightford. Lightford said in an interview that the opposition also included CPD.

Lightford convened a working group made up of Mbekeani-Wiley (the Shriver Center attorney who helped author the original bill) and the opposing groups to hammer out a deal. The group met weekly for months. Lightford said Mbekeani-Wiley played the role of both advocate and trusted guide doing an “amazing” job of bringing each group on board with the final version of the bill.

Lightford said she hopes that with all interested groups now on board with the revised measure, any hurdles should be cleared for the House to pass the measure and send it to Gov. Bruce Rauner by the end of the summer.

Lightford said the group stayed focused on safety issues—not school arrests, adolescent trauma or other concerns.

School safety was also Lightford's primary concern for the measure — she believes the required training would help officers police schools more effectively. “This officer has to be more in tune with the children and their needs and their development and how they function in their school environment,” she said. “That would allow them to be able to identify some of the key players who create and cause this violence, and potential individuals who could create harm, and provide an area where the schools are safe … [and] identify students who could create a threat or create some type of harm. So I believe that [the officers’] presence could be very helpful to de-escalate situations that could lead to large, critical issues.”

Among the biggest changes between the two versions of the bill: Ten specific categories of training were pared down to a few concrete areas, with details of the training to be ironed out later by state officials; officers who have gone through similar training can apply for a waiver; and the mandatory training comes won’t be required until 2021. Illinois police departments were also encouraged to apply for federal funding to pay for the special officers' training through the Department of Justice.

Officers will be trained in “areas of youth and adolescent developmental issues, educational administrative issues, prevention of child abuse and exploitation, youth mental health treatment, and juvenile advocacy,” according to the final version of the Senate bill.

The original bill included additional requirements: School-based officers needed to be trained in “implicit bias,” “trauma-informed care,” “child and adolescent development and psychology,” and “de-escalation techniques for limiting the use of physical force and mechanical and chemical restraints.”

Police officers’ mere presence in schools poses a host of issues, as detailed in the Shriver Center report: What are students’ rights when going about their federally required education? How is the Chicago Police Department using the information it collects on minors? Do police officers in schools keep students safe, or make it more likely those students end up with a lingering law enforcement record or behind bars, victims of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline?

Requiring some basic level of youth-specific training will hardly satisfy that larger debate about whether police in schools can at times cause more harm than good. Two days after the Senate passed the training bill, the House sent back a different bill with a wholly separate set of goals. HB 4208, sponsored by Democratic state rep Emanuel Chris Welch, passed 64-25. It called for state grants to be doled out for schools that hire non-law enforcement staff (for example, mental or behavioral health counselors) to deal with disciplinary issues. It initially called for kicking police officers out of schools in order to qualify for the grant money—a provision Welch removed so the overall measure could pass, according to the Associated Press.

The House bill is explicit: “Grant funds shall not be used to increase the use of school-based law enforcement or security personnel.”

Story by Jeremy Borden with Alex Y. Ding and Olivia Cunningham contributing.

This report was produced as part of an ongoing reporting project by City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.

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