Parents of a class of kindergarten students at a suburban Chicago grade school are demanding answers after a recent field trip many of them signed off on where youngsters were expected to visit the town Village Hall and city library ended up with some of the kids inexplicably being locked away behind bars.
Sunnyside Elementary School students, many of them as young as 6-years-old, were given a tour of the Hillside police station during the outing and some were temporarily held in an area generally reserved for criminals and those placed under arrest. Some kids even shared graphic details with their parents of how they were shown and allowed to touch a bulletproof vest and gun-holding holster.
Making matters all the more frustrating are city officials— Police Chief Joe Lukaszek outspokenly among them— continue to openly justify their clearly egregious missteps. “I reviewed videotape, and not one single kid was placed in a jail cell,” Lukaszek reasoned. “They walked past one of our cells and the door was open…they were shown a bed and a toilet. I think the young man was in our holding area and the holding area has bars.”
“That makes it a jail cell,” snapped Flora Ware, whose 6-year-old shell-shocked grandson, Stephen Stovall, was among those detained. “If it has bars and you can see through them and put your arms through them, it’s a jail cell, she said”
Also in dispute is the clarity of the fine-print buried in the “parental approval forms” sent to the homes of all the students. Parents or guardians were required to sign the forms, which described the outing as an “educational field trip.”
“We were told our children would be meeting with the Mayor and city council members,” said, Carmen Ware, Stephen’s college-enrolled mom. “There was no mention of all this.”
Besides all the immediate trauma suffered by the impressionable youngsters, Flora Ware senses the ongoing psychological scars such an excursion can render. “The last thing a black parent wants is to reinforce in the mind of a black child that a jail cell could be in his or her future,” she said. “We’re wondering what they are prepping them for? What are they saying to kindergartners? If you don’t listen to us, this is where you going to end up?
Joining her in outrage and protest was the Rev. Gregory Stanton, who also has a granddaughter that was part of the touring class. “They are completely unapologetic,” he said of School Supt. Eva Smith and Principal Nancy Tortoto. “They said it was an approved trip and if we want to complain we can write a letter. If this is a common practice in our school district, we need to change the practice.”
Carmen Ware insists she too still finds herself shaking her head in bewilderment. “Was this supposed to be a scared-straight tactic,” she said. “For 6-year-olds? What exactly is Sunnyside School saying… that it is a temporary holding facility for the jailhouse?”
As the mother of a black male well versed in the ways of a system that un forgivingly seems rigged to thwart the upward endeavors of black males everywhere, Ware is particularly perturbed that her son would come face-to face with such predisposition so early in his young live.
“What about taking them to the University of Chicago or to Northwestern University?” said Flora Ware. “They didn’t have the right to take her son to jail without permission. They didn’t have the right to put his hand on a holster that a gun was in. They didn’t have the right to let him touch a bullet-proof vest, or show him Tasers.”
And still, Flora Ware reserved most of her harshest criticisms for school district officials. “I want to deal with the root of the problem,” she said. “The focus here is not the police department; the focus is the school. The police department did not go over there and get my child and put him on a bus and take him to a jail cell.”
Added Stanton: “We definitely plan to take this up at the next school board meeting.” At that gathering, Stanton can count on having the support of several of the town’s other nearby police departments.
“What we try to do is lay the groundwork for a positive relationship outside of the traditional police response,” La Grange Police Chief Michael Holub told the Chicago Sun Times. “It doesn’t involve displaying weapons and the kids are a bit older, about fifth grade. We don’t lock them in cells and we are not conducting rogue tours.”