CHICAGO — The city's eighth-graders and high school sophomores will learn this year for the first time about one of the darkest chapters in Chicago Police Department history: when more than 100 African-Americans were tortured while in police custody during a period that stretched nearly two decades.
City officials will teach eighth- and 10th-grade students about former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who led a group of rogue cops known as the "midnight crew" in torturing suspects to get them to confess to crimes from 1972 to 1991.
The People's Law Office and Chicago Torture Justice Memorials estimates that 118 people — many of them innocent, most of them African-American men — were beaten, electrocuted or suffocated with plastic bags by Burge and his subordinates.
Chicago Board of Education President Frank Clark said an "isolated group" of officers committed "horrendous atrocities" in Chicago.
CPS chief Forrest Claypool said the unit was designed to ensure that what happened to the victims of Burge and the officers who reported to him "never happens to another soul in this city."
The curriculum was developed by CPS officials in collaboration with Burge's victims, African-American community leaders, civil rights advocates, law enforcement, academic researchers and the Chicago Teachers Union, officials said.
"Only by facing history directly and honestly can we heighten understanding of this dark chapter and increase our ability to confront its challenges," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a prepared statement.
The mayor said the curriculum "was created thoughtfully and collaboratively" and that he was "confident it will be a meaningful, impactful and educational experience for students across Chicago Public Schools."
Darrell Cannon, one of the victims of Burge and his crew, said the new curriculum "was a long time coming."
"There is more work to be done," Cannon said. "But this is one hell of a step in the right direction."
Cannon said he was hopeful that educating students would prevent future police misconduct.
Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said the new lessons were especially necessary in the aftermath of the Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 13 resulting in the death of Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed when a white supremacist drove into a crowd protesting racism.
What has happened in recent weeks "put on front street" that hatred and bigotry are still an issue in American society, said Johnson, who apologized directly to Cannon and Anthony Holmes, another victim of torture at the hands of Chicago police officers.
However, Johnson said the Police Department of the Burge era "doesn't exist anymore."
"You can't begin to heal and to fix it unless you acknowledge it," Johnson said in response to a question about whether the lessons would demoralize officers. "We can't ignore what happened. It does hurt when something you love is being criticized. But we have to learn from that criticism."
An investigation of the Police Department from 2012-16 by the U.S. Justice Department released in January found widespread racial discrimination by officers.
The Police Department "tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force" in Chicago, according to the report.
Chicago police officers "expressed discriminatory views and intolerance with regard to race, religion, gender, and national origin" without penalty during interactions with Chicagoans on the street and on social media, according to the report.
Johnson said he had not read that portion of the report released more than eight months ago that laid out a road map for police reform efforts.
"We have no room and no tolerance for hatred or racism within CPD," Johnson said, promising to hold officers accountable for racist statements and actions.
Emanuel apologized for the torture and established the new curriculum in May 2015 as part of an agreement to pay $5.5 million in reparations to the still-living victims of Burge and his crew.
When the unit begins, students will watch a video message from Johnson.
"What happened was wrong," Johnson said in the video. "As your police superintendent, I condemn it. My promise to you all is that any and all torture is in our past; it will not be our future."
The police superintendent adds, "I also want you to know that there are countless moments of police courage and professionalism, and they are far more frequent than the moments of excessive force."
Still, said Johnson, cases of police abuse of citizens "are wrong, and no matter how isolated they are, they undermine our entire department and our relationship with our residents, our communities — with you."
"As your police superintendent, I want you to listen carefully during these lessons, ask hard questions, reflect on what you're learning, and most importantly to think about what you can do to make Chicago a better place for everyone," he says in the video.
Six CPS schools tested the curriculum as part of a pilot program last year to ensure it would be both engaging and appropriate for students. As part of the pilot, torture survivors visited several classrooms to tell their stories and hear students' questions, CPS officials said.
To complete the unit, high school sophomores will be asked to create a memorial to educate the public about this time in Chicago's history. Eighth-grade students will be asked to write an opinion piece on how to improve police-community relationships, CPS officials said.
The reparations fund will allow a maximum of $100,000 to be paid to each of Burge and his crew's victims, while the ordinance also allows the victims and their families health care, counseling and free tuition at the City Colleges.
Five men who were tortured or physically abused by Burge or his crew were sentenced to death, only to be exonerated.
The city has paid about $73.5 million Burge-related settlements. Burge was fired in 1993 and later served a prison sentence for perjury for lying about torture under oath.
Burge continues to be paid a city pension.