Liz Dozier significantly improved a violent, under-performing South Side school. Here’s why she thinks there are better ways to create a safe school environment than having police in Chicago’s schools.
This article ran in the Chicago Sun-Times on June 26, 2020.
By Mark Brown
Liz Dozier knows a little something about police in the schools.
As principal of Fenger Academy High School from 2009 to 2015, Dozier was widely credited with turning a violent and under-performing school into a welcoming place that gave kids a chance to succeed.
And what she’ll tell you now, with benefit of hindsight, is that police do not belong in Chicago schools, at least not stationed there full-time.
That’s not a knock on police. That’s her sincere belief that there are better ways to create a safe school environment without exposing children to the criminal justice system that comes with having police in the building.
The Chicago Board of Education this past week narrowly rejected an attempt to end a $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department that provides armed, uniformed “school resource officers” in most high schools.
But the issue is far from settled. The question of renewing the contract will be back before the school board within weeks. Some Chicago City Council members are pushing to take up the matter as well.
That’s why I sought out Dozier, who I knew from her work at Fenger before the CNN docu-series “Chicagoland” made her an education celebrity.
I believe her to be the real deal, as apparently do Chicagoans Kimbra and Mark Walter, who have channeled millions of dollars into her good works through an organization she founded in 2016, Chicago Beyond, dedicated to helping young people realize their potential.
Dozier has been out of CPS for a while. But that also gives her the freedom to speak her mind. She definitely opened my mind.
Dozier inherited a bad situation at Fenger, which is located in Roseland, with daily brawls involving 50 to 60 students. In the second week of school, one of her students, Derrion Albert, was clubbed to death in a melee on his way home.
Police made 300 arrests at Fenger in her first year there.
What eventually turned around those problems, Dozier believes, was building relationships with students, not making arrests.
Dozier and her Fenger staff emphasized creating a school more attuned to the emotional needs of its students than to policing them. That required understanding why students were acting out.
Instead of relying on police to enforce discipline, they instituted restorative justice practices, which focus on repairing harm rather than applying punishment, and held peace circles to defuse conflicts. They provided grief counseling and anger-management training to students and created trauma groups to help deal with emotional baggage they brought to school from home.
It might sound like mumbo-jumbo, but these methods work well with young people.
By the time I visited Fenger a few years later, I encountered a warm, friendly atmosphere and a more relaxed student body.
After her first year at Fenger, Dozier moved to replace the police officers assigned to the school with new ones more attuned to her philosophy. She has only good things to say about the work of that second set of school resource officers.
But she thinks her students would have been better off with more counselors, social workers or therapists instead. Security guards from the neighborhood trained in de-escalation techniques are just as effective in providing school security in most situations, she says, and can call in police in extreme circumstances.
A school principal will always need a good working relationship with the local district commander, but police are asked to intervene in too many situations, Dozier believes.
“We put too much on them,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily warrant a police response.”
The problem with getting police involved is that it sucks students into a situation from which they might never recover.
“Once a kid touches the criminal justice system, it just steamrolls,” Dozier says.
It’s not enough for CPS to give a school the option of getting rid of its police officers if no resources are offered to take their place.
In Chicago’s resource-poor schools, it’s hardly a surprise that school communities would choose to hang on to what little they have, no matter how imperfect.
Dozier agrees with those who say the $33 million that CPS spends on its police contract should be reinvested in alternative resources.
“You have to give the schools what they need,” she says. “You can’t just take [police] out and say, ‘Good luck.’ ”
Maybe that can’t be accomplished by the beginning of this school year. But it ought to be the stated goal of the Chicago Public Schools.