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School board’s policies and educational 'hunger games' drive the code of silence in our schools


As a CPS social worker, I was horrified to hear the news of students being sexually abused – and those cases not being properly reported.  As a clinician, I have many situations where DCFS has to be called because a child has been molested outside of school by a family member, family friend or other molester.  It has always been in our training and in our school’s policy to always report! So what has gone wrong? My fellow clinicians and I started discussing the need for more trainings, after assuming that administrators and staff are not of aware what needs to be – and is required to be – reported. 

Then I started thinking more broadly about what has been happening at the Board, and the roots of this disaster started making more sense to me. 

The Board has created an extremely competitive climate within its schools: 1+, IB, Wall to Wall IB, AP classes, dual credit classes and whatnot –all sorts of classifications that make schools attractive to the best and brightest students. And with student-based budgeting, the more students we attract to our schools, the more resources we have for our students. These ‘hunger games’ between schools create an atmosphere of intense competition, and discourage sharing information that could expose schools to scrutiny, criticism and the threat of negative impacts to ratings, enrollment, budgets and more. 

What’s the result? Problems are not accurately reported or are under-reported, from dirty schools and high dropout rates to harassment or sexual abuse by students or staff – anything that may hurt the reputation of the school!

Teachers and other school personnel are deeply affected by this competition. A job at a ‘good’ school – one with adequate resources, a well-maintained facility and adequate staff – is hard to get and in short supply. Many teachers who’ve been displaced by school closings are still looking for a permanent job, and other teachers are nervous about speaking up to administrators for fear it may affect their evaluation scores and their job.

The threat is real. We’ve recently seen several teachers and clinicians threatened with job loss or run out of their schools in the wake of whistle-blowing or advocating for their students. Some teachers have even figured out that if they play nice with My Voice/My School teacher surveys, their school has a better chance of becoming a 1+ school. If they withhold their true feelings about poor school climates, poor relationships with administrators or other problems, their school will earn more points towards the coveted 1+ school ranking!

Checks and balances, which are a MUST in any healthy organization, are absent in CPS from the top of the system down. We don’t have an elected school board, and administrators and staff are afraid to challenge the Mayor, as we clearly see in all of the rubber-stamping that goes on. This trickles down from administrators to staff and students, very much like a dysfunctional family system! 

What do we do?  Will more trainings and in-services or additional policies and procedures solve this critical problem? Not without real accountability, an end to fear-based governance, and the freedom to put our children’s needs ahead of politics. The bottom line is that, without a healthy, democratic process – including an elected, representative school board – trainings and new policies alone will not work, because the dysfunction that drives the code of silence remains.

We see it in our brothers and sisters in the Police Department – and our school system is getting just as bad.  Two recent CEO’s have been forced out – and one is in jail – for corruption and ethics scandals. This board has been exposed for leaving our vulnerable special education students unprotected and abused with their new policies and procedures. But none of this dysfunction was tackled internally. Instead, teachers and parents were ignored or worse.

We need to end this lack of accountability if our school system is to become healthy. All schools need to have the resources to be excellent schools. Budgets should be based on the needs of every school and its students, and not primarily on the number of students attending. The competitive marketing of schools and the push to attract students at any cost needs to end. Excellent neighborhood schools should be the norm and not the exception, where the administrators, frontline staff, parents and students share a commitment to the community -- and we’re all dedicated to keeping children and their neighborhood safe.

If the Mayor and his administrators are truly serious about keeping our students safe, then we need to see these changes: an end to educational hunger games, an elected, representative school board free from political manipulation, and sustainable community schools that are adequately resourced according to the needs of each of our students and their families.

CPS school social worker and CTU member Bessie Tsitsopoulos

Chicago Teachers Union