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Details on federal complaint accusing Rockford Public Schools of discriminatory discipline practices

Lockers at DeKalb High School
Spencer Tritt
Lockers at DeKalb High School

During a fire drill at West Middle School in Rockford, a school resource officer is asked to help control and calm a 12-year-old Black student with special needs. The officer doesn’t know about the student's disability, and West teacher Justin Saichek watches the officer get physical.

“I witnessed the officer grab the student by the wrist," he said, "and curse at the student saying, ‘You don't want to f*** with me.’”

Saichek says he and another student stepped in and whisked the student away from the officer, reassuring them they’re safe.

That incident is cited in a federal complaint filed by the National Center for Youth Law & MacArthur Justice Center with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. They allege it’s emblematic of how Illinois’ 3rd-largest school district racially discriminates against its students of color by over-referring them to law enforcement.

The report shows that in the 2022-23 school year, Black students made up 31% of the student body, but about 55% of school resource officer referrals.

And the complaint says the discrimination goes beyond referrals.

Once referred to school police for “subjective” discipline -- which the complaint categorizes as behavior that doesn’t involve drugs, alcohol, or weapons -- Black students are far more likely to be issued municipal tickets.

Since 2018, Black students received 75% of those tickets. White students got under 3% of them. Those municipal violation tickets also come with fines.

Nina Monfredo is an attorney at National Center for Youth Law, who has been attending hearings for these cases in Rockford.

“We saw students and their families," she said, "getting defaulted for $750."

She says those expensive default judgments are legal, but uncommon.

“Where Rockford is a little bit of an outlier," said Monfredo, "is, in addition to the amount, the volume of ticketing. Rockford has hearings on municipal tickets every single Wednesday.”

And the hearings are during school hours, which means students have to miss class.

According to data obtained by WNIJ through a Freedom of Information Act Request, police have issued Rockford students nearly $60,000 worth of fines over the past two school years.

In 2022, Rockford Public Schools rewrote its Student Code of Conduct to make it less punitive. But Monfredo says school administrators don’t always abide by the district’s own disciplinary recommendations.

“Even though the Code of Conduct may recommend something," she said, "that's not exclusionary or not a referral to law enforcement, there doesn't appear to be anything in the code of conduct that prevents departures from that."

Overall, the complaint claims school resource officers are supposed to keep students safe, but the way they’re being deployed at RPS is making them less safe and less connected to school.

“They are trained to address law enforcement matters,” said Monfredo. “But a huge percentage of the matters that get referred to SROs in Rockford are not law enforcement matters. The vast majority of them are school disciplinary issues.”

In fact, the head of the National Association of School Resource Officers, Mo Canady, says their best practices strongly recommend against SROs being involved with school discipline.

“That really belongs to the school administration, not law enforcement," said Canady. "That's a school administration duty.”

He also says he’s not a big fan of school police officers issuing students tickets for misbehavior.

The National Center for Youth Law is advocating for state legislation to ban student ticketingin Illinois. A bill didn’t pass during this past session, but they say there’s momentum.

Angie Jimenez is the directing attorney at National Center for Youth Law. She says schools should look into alternatives to school resource officers, and mentioned Chicago Public Schools ending its SRO contracts this year.

“What some of the schools have done," she said, "is taken some of those dollars that had been allocated for officers and put them into different restorative justice practices and hiring additional counselors."

The next step for the federal complaint is to wait and see if the Office of Civil Rights opens an investigation and works with Rockford Public Schools to address the alleged discriminatory practices. Jimenez says she hopes that investigation opens soon.

A spokesperson for Rockford Public Schools says they’ll respond accordingly to the complaint once they receive it from the Office of Civil Rights.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.