This school year, Chicago Public Schools students will learn the basics: English, math and the shameful history of torture in the Chicago Police Department. As part of a reparations package, which City Council passed on May 6, 2015, CPS will now teach eighth-graders and high school sophomores about Jon Burge, a former CPD detective accused of using torture primarily on black men in his custody between the 1970s and 1990s to force confessions to crimes.
According to a new curriculum outline by CPS, six lessons will be added to U.S. History, ending in a unit assessment in which students create a proposal for a memorial in honor of the victims of Burge’s torture methods. The first lesson calls for students to discuss opinions or experiences with racism and police brutality. This precedes discussion of Burge’s human rights abuses and the police officers whose actions helped him hide his crimes. Counseling will be made available because of the traumatic impact discussions about racism can have on the people of color who make up the majority of the CPS student bodies.
Chicago has a duty to citizens who have suffered at the hands of its institutions. This new curriculum is a major step toward amends for the city’s past. However, as this new lesson is implemented in classrooms, educators must be aware of the difference between atoning for the atrocities committed by Burge and preventing a recurrence.
These schools teach potential police officers and educators; therefore, Chicago must work to prevent future generations from repeating past crimes. When children learn about Burge, they must not fall into the belief that the atrocities committed were just ancient history. Societal ills—such as racism—will not disappear even after the major perpetrators are put on trial and convicted. The Burge case did not exist in a vacuum.
For years, he and officers under his command freely tortured men, leaving them with years of imprisonment and emotional trauma, and their pain didn’t end with physical assaults. Victims tried to speak out and seek justice, but they were silenced because the city did not want to believe what its police officers were capable of. Ignoring the victims’ pleas erased their history and the relationship of Burge to slavery, reconstruction and the struggle for civil rights, which seemed far away. Society seemed to forget systemic racism existed.
A lesson on this sordid chapter in Chicago history assures Burge’s victims that Chicago will not forget what it permitted to happen. Educators have the opportunity to emphasize that Burge was not an isolated horror. In a safe place, with the support of peers and mentors, students should be able to discuss why Chicago was complacent for years while Burge tortured. After that painful reminder and failure to act are confronted, classrooms can take steps to prevent history repeating itself.