Why you should care
Because school and safety should be synonymous.
After someone pulled the fire alarms at a school on the southwest side of Chicago for four consecutive days, Jadine Chou, chief safety and security officer at Chicago Public Schools, had had enough.
When she showed up at the school the next day, someone pulled the alarm again, and in the fury of confusion, three male students rushed past her. She pulled out her badge: “Jadine Chou, Office of Safety and Security,” she called, and the students stopped, glanced at the short, 50-something Chinese-American and took off. She yelled after them, “I will find out who you are! I promise you.”
And she did, but she wasn’t after them. “Bring me the leader of their group — the one those boys look up to,” she told the school’s security officer.
Soon after, Chou was sitting across from the student, a young black male. “I’m not here to accuse you,” she said. “You’re not in trouble, but I’d like to make you a deal. You make this stop, and I’ll find you a job.”
The fire alarms weren’t pulled for the rest of the school year.
If we know that a climate is rough at a school, it does no good to bury our heads in the sand.
It’s an approach unique to Chou’s leadership at CPS, where she’s been protecting more than 370,000 students since November 2011. “When I started six years ago,” she tells OZY, “the Office of Safety and Security played much more of a role related to enforcement of rules. Enforcement has a connotation of punitive consequences.”
Roseanna Ander, founding executive director of the University of Chicago Crime and Education Lab, has partnered with CPS since 2008. “What Jadine has been doing is really changing the orientation of the safety and security staff in the school to move away from catching kids doing bad things to being a positive adult in these young people’s lives.”
To this end, Chou collaborated with Umoja, a Chicago-based student development organization, to train her more than 1,300 security staff in de-escalation techniques, restorative justice and implicit racial bias. Sarah-Bess Dworin, the organization’s director of curriculum and instruction, designed lessons specifically for CPS.
On the first of several days, Chou explains, the participants brought back their own experiences as children and students: “Helping them recall the challenges they faced as children and how caring adults ended up impacting how they felt about themselves. Many of the officers shared very personal stories about the trauma they experienced and how thanks to one caring adult, they were able to make it through.”
Chou’s work with Dworin and Umoja seems to be working, evidenced in Chicago’s Safe Passage Program, an initiative adopted in 2009 to provide young people with safe and secure routes to school, supervised by contracted members of the community. And in a city that’s become synonymous with violent crime, where most of the shootings and homicides are blamed on rival gangs, protecting students is literally a matter of life and death.
Under Chou’s leadership, the 35 Safe Passage routes established at the start of the program have grown to 145 routes in 2018. What’s more, CPS reports that besides quadrupling the number of Safe Passage routes, the number of criminal incidents along the routes has dropped by 32 percent over the last five years. Perhaps most promising is the figure from the past year showing that student victimization is down 53 percent versus the same period one year earlier.
Encouraging — except that Chicago Public Schools has a history of fraudulent reporting. As recent as 2016, CPS Inspector General Nicholas J. Schuler uncovered systematic attendance fraud at four of the district’s high schools. For Chou, truancy is a major safety concern. “When I started, we had a student who was shot and killed during the school day, and I asked, ‘What was this child doing outside at 11 in the morning?’ And the answer was, ‘He wasn’t in school today.’ But when you looked in the system, it showed otherwise.”
To verify the work of her team, Chou partnered with University of Chicago Crime and Education Lab and opened her books to Roseanna Ander. “We have our own independent access to both Chicago Public School data and Chicago Police Department data,” Ander assures OZY, “and we have every reason to believe that the numbers she gave us are consistent with what we’re seeing in the data.”
Chou invites even closer scrutiny. “If you have a question about a school, walk with me. If we know that a climate is rough at a school, it does no good to bury our heads in the sand.”
Growing up in Skokie, on the northwest border of Chicago, Chou recalls, “You didn’t have to worry about getting to school. I’d worry about a math test.” She earned her bachelor’s degree in engineering at Northwestern University, followed by an MBA at the University of Chicago. Chou started out in corporate America, doing brand management at Fortune 500 companies including Kraft Foods and Motorola — “doing very well, I thought, but I realized I had the resources to do what I wanted to do, so I applied online at the Chicago Housing Authority.”
She spent six years climbing the ranks at CHA, providing support and security for its 18,000 units. But when she considered the impact she could make helping nearly 400,000 young people, she moved to CPS. Thinking back, she says, “My dad passed while I was in school during winter break. He thought I would be an investment banker. He never imagined I’d become a public servant.”
Harold Davis, a community activist and the executive director of the Auditorium Beautification Project at CPS, has collaborated with Chou since 2011. “What drives her success is she loves what she’s doing, and she loves children,” he says. ”I don’t know anyone who loves children more than Jadine Chou.”
In the months after joining CPS, Chou appeared on Chicago’s CAN TV to introduce herself to the local community. “If we do our jobs right,” she said then, “we are essentially working ourselves out of a job.”
Six years later, her objective remains the same. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had, but at some point, you want to pass the baton. I’m not comfortable doing that until we hit certain goals. When you are chief of safety and security, you want everyone to be safe, all the time. You see things through a lens of safety. That is all you see.”