Chicago schools adding police torture topic to curriculum
CHICAGO — A police brutality scandal that remains one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Chicago and continues to haunt the city decades after it ended is about to become a topic taught to every student in the nation’s third largest school district.
On Monday, the Chicago Public Schools announced that it had launched last year a pilot program in six schools in which students were taught about police torture inflicted on African American suspects for years by a group of detectives under the command of former Police Commander Jon Burge.
The story of what happened — the dozens of men who were tortured into confessing of crimes they didn’t commit — will be part of the curriculum for every 8th grader and high school freshmen in the city’s public schools. The rollout comes more than two years after the City Council approved an ordinance that called for the city to pay $5.5 million in reparations to the torture victims, issue a formal apology, provide other benefits such as free tuition to the victims and their families, and teach the students of the city about the scandal.
At a news conference, educators and others including the torture victims themselves said it was especially important to roll out the curriculum at a time when the city’s police are trying to win back public trust that was shattered with the 2015 release of a video of a white police officer fatally shooting black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times. It also comes at a time when the U.S. is confronted by rising white nationalism.
“With racial tension happening across the United States, this program allows students to have a comfortable forum to discuss (the scandal) and share their ideas,” said Alene Mason, a principal at one of the six schools that took part in last year’s pilot program.
Darrell Cannon, who has told of having his genitals shocked by Burge and his men with an electric cattle prod, said the curriculum will help the students not only learn about the past, but help understand more recent incidents, including the McDonald shooting. “If you know about the past and the Jon Burges, then you can make sense of how some police officers till ill felt emboldened to treat us any kind of way,” he said.
In fact, the reparations are part of a larger effort to regain public trust in the department that eroded over the years, in large part because of stories about how Burge and his detectives shocked black suspects with cattle prods or beat them with phone books until they gave false confessions in the 1970s until the early 1990s. And what happened has continued to make news, both as Burge was ultimately convicted of lying about the torture and as the price tag for the scandal has climbed past $100 million as the city has lost or settled lawsuits.
The students will learn about the torture that devastated lives and tore families apart — and will hear from the victims themselves about what they and their families endured. Students will also learn about the failures of the police department and other officials that allowed the torture to go on for years as well as efforts by community groups and others that ultimately helped win the release of torture victims from prison.