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Teaching Kids About Burge 'Deplorable,' Parents In Police-Heavy 'Hood Say

By Alex Nitkin | September 14, 2017 5:51am
"You're taking eighth-graders and trying to mold their minds with material that is highly confrontational and controversial," parent Angela McMillan said at Wednesday's meeting of the Edison Park Local School Council.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

EDISON PARK — Parents and teachers at Edison Park Elementary School, 6200 N. Olcott Ave., grappled Wednesday night with how to teach lessons on police misconduct to classes full of students whose parents patrol the streets every day.

Last month, CPS leaders announced that eighth-graders and high school sophomores in public schools across the city will learn this year about disgraced former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, who led a group of rogue officers known as the "midnight crew" in torturing suspects to force confessions from 1972-1991.

The new curriculum was developed as part of a sweeping reparations package approved by city leaders in 2015, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council voted to set aside $5.5 million for the more than 100 Burge torture victims.

RELATED: A Police Torture Lesson Plan: Here's What CPS Kids Will Learn About Burge

But some parents on the city's Far Northwest Side, where thousands of officers hang up their hats when their shifts are over, fear their kids may be subjected to a wholesale lashing of the Chicago Police Department.

Angela McMillan, whose daughter just started eighth grade at Edison Park Elementary, said she was "infuriated, appalled and disgusted" over a curriculum she called "out of place and out of context."

"You're taking eighth-graders and trying to mold their minds with material that is highly confrontational and controversial," McMillan said during Wednesday's meeting of the Edison Park Local School Council. "It's contradictory to how they live their personal lives with their families, where they eat dinner every night and celebrate Christmas ... I think it's deplorable."

McMillan asked the LSC for a way to opt her daughter out of the program, but the Burge material is embedded in the district's core social studies curriculum, Edison Park Principal Jeffrey Finelli told her.

"It would be a little like saying 'I don't like quadratic equations, so I'm going to opt out of algebra,'" Finelli said.

RELATED: Police Union: CPS Must Tell 'Full Truth' About Burge Torture Era

Social studies teacher Emily Skowronek walked parents through the 116-page curriculum, which joins lessons on Japanese internment and Jim Crow laws as part of a larger "civil rights" unit taught to eighth-graders every year.

Skowronek will spark discussions among students about how to improve police-community relations going forward, but she'll leave the Burge episode squarely in the past, she said.

"There are a lot of bad apples in every professions, and we'll try to portray that to the kids," Skowronek said. "Just because there were a few people who did bad things, that doesn't mean the whole department is bad."

Parents like Leticia Kaner, a 19-year police veteran, questioned why students would learn such an ugly chapter from the department's history without including lessons on the sweeping Police Department reforms enacted in the last year.

"The whole curriculum is really one-sided, especially when our general orders can change in the blink of an eye," Kaner said. "Civilians don't get how many changes we're going through as police officers right now."

The eighth-grade civil rights unit won't be taught until spring, and in the meantime administrators at Edison Park will work with other Far Northwest Side schools to iron out a common method of teaching the sensitive subject, they said.

"We know our students and know how we want to approach this, but what that looks like right now is unanswered," Finelli told parents Wednesday. "We know what the curriculum says, but as for how it’s carried out, we’ll be better informed as the year goes on with more discussion."