The Backstory: Irene Romulo

Reporting on 'gang contracts' and the criminalization of youth

Last May, Ida B. Wells fellow Irene Romulo published her investigation, “‘Gang Contracts’ in Cicero and Berwyn Schools Raise Concerns About Criminalization of Youth,” produced in partnership with Injustice Watch and the publication she co-founded, Cicero Independiente. In the story, Romulo revealed that over the past seven years, over 100 students in the predominantly Latinx, working-class suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn, Illinois, have signed “gang behavior contracts,” which prohibit them from engaging in what could be considered gang-related behavior and warn they could face escalating disciplinary measures for breaking the agreement. Throughout the article, Romulo links the current use of “gang contracts” to Cicero’s long history of criminalizing youth.

In this conversation, we discuss how she discovered the ‘gang contracts,’ the challenges of reporting during a pandemic, and the impact her story has had on students in her community.

Paco Alvarez: My first question is, how did you first learn that schools in Cicero and Berwyn were using gang contracts? And what drew you to the story?

Irene Romulo: I first learned about this issue through a community meeting that was hosted by members of the group that’s profiled in the story called Ixchel. So they had a community meeting where they were discussing different issues in the schools, including the high expulsion and suspension rates. And it was there that somebody mentioned the gang contracts in passing. And it was something that immediately caught my attention and I wasn’t immediately able to look into the issue. But thanks to the Ida B. Wells Fellowship, I was able to actually commit time to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get the actual copies of the gang contracts and just learn more about the issue. It was unfortunate because when I did start investigating this, I did reach out to the school district officials just to ask for background information. But I didn’t receive any responses, so I had to rely on a lot of FOIA requests to learn more about how the gang contracts are used or were being implemented.

Ultimately, it was an issue that just felt very important to me because of how much youth are criminalized. Gang databases, using gang affiliation as reasons to increase surveillance in communities of color or to increase patrolling in communities of color, is something that has received a lot of attention in Chicago, but not necessarily the suburbs. And I know that in Cicero and Berwyn, as somebody who grew up here, there’s a long history of targeting young people who are alleged to be gang affiliated. So it was definitely something that I found very interesting as a personal matter, but as something that other people cared about in Cicero, too. I felt it was important to actually listen to people who do activism around this issue and spend time investigating this a little bit more, given how important it already was to the community here.

Alvarez: I think your article does a really great job of connecting the extremes of these gang contracts to Cicero’s history of criminalizing youth under the auspices of fighting gangs. How did you come to that connection over the course of your reporting? Was it just apparent to you when you first came to the story?

Romulo: So I had known a little bit about some of the — for example, the Gang Crimes Tactical Unit that the different police departments had. Because of the investigation, I did start researching a little bit more about the history of this and researching even Delia Barajas, who was profiled in the story as one of the community members here in Cicero who’s actively doing something about these issues. I learned so much about Cicero’s history, not just in terms of the demographic changes that have occurred, but the different policies that the town has tried to implement in the 90s and the early 2000s, despite the fact that gangs have been a documented issue in Cicero since before that. Like Cicero is known as a mafia town, as having organized crime. But the amount of resources that were spent wasn’t the same until the demographics started changing.

If you’re familiar with what’s happening in the city of Chicago now, the mayor, Lori Lightfoot, is actually trying to advance an ordinance very similar to what Cicero passed in the early 2000s, which is an ordinance that allows them to seize the assets of alleged gang members. Again, it’s kind of like this rhetoric that is used about gang membership and the increase in gangs and this fear around gangs that’s used to pass these policies that ultimately, at least according to many of the advocates and people who I spoke to, don’t necessarily address the underlying issues of why youth are involved in gangs, automatically criminalize involvement that’s not necessarily criminal in itself, like being a part of a group isn’t necessarily against any any laws in that way. So, yeah, it’s definitely an issue that’s gaining more attention, and that locally is very important.

Alvarez: Yeah, and I guess speaking on that local angle, the story was published in the publication you co-founded, Cicero Independiente. How did coming from a community based outlet help your reporting?

Romulo: For me, one of the reasons why I got into journalism in the first place is because I felt that often there’s a big disconnect between investigative investigations that look into systemic problems and the communities that they’re actually about. I find that often those findings, those things that are written, don’t make it back to the people that contributed or that were willing to share their story or two who are actively doing something to change it. So it was very important for me to be able to investigate an issue that’s important to community members, right? And make sure that they have actual access to that information and that it’s useful in some way.

So being able to publish it in Spanish with our very local outlet, Cicero Independiente, was a top priority for me and something that I mentioned in the beginning that we had to do to make sure that people who are predominantly Spanish speaking here in our suburb actually have access to it, are able to read it. We’re also going to be publishing a print copy of this story next week that will be distributed. And as part of the story, we also worked with Injustice Watch to create a “Know Your Rights” researched article, specifically for young people who may be facing similar situations. It was important to have this investigation, have a tool that’s useful for people and make sure that the people who it’s about actually have access to it. That “Know Your Rights” piece too was also translated to Spanish and it was something that we printed out and distributed in town. So, yeah, all of those things are super important for me as a journalist and as a local journalist to make sure that they were top priority and not just after thoughts.

Alvarez: You focus the article on one former student, Roberto. How did you get in contact with him initially? And did you speak to other students who had signed gang contracts?

Romulo: So I spoke to other students who have faced disciplinary policies in the district, but with the intent of trying to find somebody who had signed a gang contract. But when I first started reporting on the stories was actually when we went into lockdown and all of my plans for outreach got thrown out the window. I had planned to go to different physical locations around the area where I know young people hangout to talk to them about this and about to figure out what other issues are happening, what’s at the top of their minds. But I wasn’t able to do that.

So I didn’t connect with Roberto until pretty later on in the story when I had kind of given up hope that I’d be able to find a student. But, you know, a lot of cold calling, a different organization, different gang intervention workers, different youth workers. And finally, one of them was able to connect me to Roberto. So, yeah, I was very glad to be able to find him and to know that him and his family were very willing to talk about this issue and recognize the importance of being able to share their story and their solutions. Another part that was very important for me, and that’s included in this investigation in particular at the end, are the solutions that are being proposed by people who live here, and Roberto himself. He had a lot to say about how he has felt in school and the things that he felt were missing in school to support students like him.

Because ultimately, I do believe that the people most affected by these problems are often the ones better equipped to propose solutions to address them. So that’s why it was very important for me to include that part in the investigation that kind of gives hope, talks about what people are already doing and talks about the solutions that they’re proposing themselves. And it was I mean, Roberto is such a beautiful person and such a great young person to speak with. I get to spend time with him, his family, his siblings. And it was great to get to know him and be able to include not just how it’s affected him, but just his ideas for himself, his future and what he’d like to see.

Alvarez: You’ve kind of talked a bit about this, but what were some of the challenges you faced while reporting this story? And did you face pushback from school administrators once you actually got in contact with them?

Romulo: Yeah. So being in lockdown in the pandemic was definitely a challenge that I’m sure I’m not the only journalist who has faced. And especially you know, we went into lockdown when I had started reporting on this, and it was tough to be able to find people to speak to, to do outreach with or to like places to outreach to. But so it took a lot of work, a lot of digging, just cold calling and sending a bunch of emails, trying to find people to speak to. So it was definitely a challenge that I was able to deal with. It took a little longer than I expected, but ultimately I was able to connect with people who had a lot to say.

Talking to the school district was also very challenging. I sent multiple requests for interviews to multiple people, gave them calls, showed up to the district office on various occasions. And I was not getting anything from them. And in the beginning they were just requests for information. I did tell them, hey, I’m just starting to research this. I’d like to talk to you all about this. But didn’t get any responses back. Ultimately, I did get some emailed responses from both districts, the high school district and the elementary school district. But it’s always tough, I think, to try to go back and forth in writing rather than just having a conversation. So, you know, that was challenging.

And this was also the first in-depth investigation that I worked on where I was relying on a lot of Freedom of Information Act requests. There was some that I submitted that I had to rewrite a few times because they came back with either no files found or they were too broad and were considered too burdensome. So I was kind of learning as I went as well and had to like I said, made some FOIA requests multiple times until I was able to get what I was looking for, to get information that helped advance the investigation further. So, yeah, ultimately, I would say the biggest challenge was just the pandemic, trying to report on this issue as students are in remote learning, as people are not able to — or face a lot of risk when leaving their home. So that was tough.

Alvarez: The story was published back in May. Have school administrators made any changes since publication?

Romulo: Yes. So I actually have been attending the district board meetings since then as much as possible. And I was very happy to hear and meet some current high school students who found the story on social media and were inspired to actually go to the district board meeting to speak out against these gang contracts. Like that, for me, was an unexpected but –it just made me feel so great to know that there’s these young people, young high schoolers, who are reading this stuff that I’m working on and who took it upon themselves to go to the board meeting and speak out and to launch an email campaign. And at the meeting, there was actually a board member who also expressed that she was not on board with the gang contracts. And I followed up, and there’s been other people who have spoken up against the gang contracts. And according to this board member, the policy is currently under review by the superintendent and they will be addressing it at a later board meeting. So the policy has not yet been removed, but it is under review. And I know that the different group that I mentioned, the Education Committee that was formerly known as Ixchel, this is still an issue that they’re working on. So they haven’t abandoned it. And I think the story has helped to kind of reinvigorate their efforts.

Something that’s less quantifiable perhaps, but that has been also very unexpected has just been the different alumni and former students at the high school district who have reached out to me and told me that they experienced similar disciplinary measures or knew friends who had to sign gang contracts. Some of them have expressed a feeling of growing up and feeling a lot of shame, being considered a bad kid or feeling like they were bad people, bad kids that deserve this. And reading the story, as they’ve said, has really put into perspective how much of an institutional issue this is and not just reflective of their own personal failings. So I think that’s been very important, too. And yeah, a big part of I think what investigations can do, shed light on systemic problems and help people understand their own personal experiences as a part of a larger issue, a larger issue that may not or — a larger system that’s not necessarily working.

About the reporter