Area school districts trying to take steps to protect students

Area school districts trying to take steps to protect students

Lockdown. A chilling word.

Years ago, it was used in the context of prison riots.

Today, school teachers and principals keep lockdown plans in their desks – not to confine riots, but to respond to an armed intruder in the hallways.

School shootings in some 15 states, including Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Tennessee and Wisconsin, have changed the world as far as school administrators are concerned.

And in October – when a local milk truck driver went into an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa., and tied up the girls, shooting 10 and killing five – the world seemed even more haywire.

School administrators and teachers used to worry about tornadoes. Snowstorms. Fires.

Now they attend meetings to learn how to respond to bomb threats, weapons in book bags and even death wish lists compiled by a twisted, tormented student.

"I think Columbine changed everything," said Michael Shonk, superintendent of Unit 7 schools at Tolono. "These days we have telephones in the classroom, lockdowns, searches of lockers, criminal background checks of employees and intruders in the buildings.

"I didn't imagine things like that when I first started in education 31 years ago."

The sheriff's deputy who works at St. Joseph-Ogden High School said the concern about school violence extends to schools of all size – in big cities or small towns.

"I think throughout the country, if you want to alarm or disturb somebody, the place to go is where the children are," Deputy Alicia Maxey said.

And the incidents are random and nonsensical, Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Keith Oates said.

"It is hard to put a pattern on it," Oates said. "None of us are completely safe. We live in a random world. If someone really wants to hurt someone and tries hard enough, they are probably going to do it at some point."

Student pens death list

Though there haven't been any shootings locally, rural schools in East Central Illinois hardly are immune from safety concerns.

– In late September, a "death list" found at DeLand-Weldon Junior High gave school officials and parents quite a scare. A seventh-grade boy was caught with a hit list scrawled on his student planner containing the names of three girls, a teacher and a Monticello police officer.

The student who wrote the list had moved into the district three weeks earlier and was immediately suspended. His family removed him from the school.

– A few days after the Amish girls were shot in Pennsylvania, a rumor flew around St. Joseph-Ogden that one of the students was seen with a "hit list." Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said the report was thoroughly investigated, but no such list was found and school continued the next day as scheduled.

– At about the same time, M-S officials received an anonymous phone call saying a bomb had been placed outside one of the entrances to the junior high.

– A year ago, Blue Ridge High at Farmer City called out the police bomb squad from the University of Illinois and its bomb-sniffing dogs after a caller left a message that a bomb had been planted in a locker.

– Pocketknives have been recovered from school lockers, according to Kevin Kaiser, a Rantoul police officer who works as a school resource officer for Rantoul elementaries.

"We had some bomb threats at the high school right after Columbine and after 9/11," Kaiser said.

He carries a loaded gun in his holster as he patrols Eater Junior High and four elementary schools. A gun might not have been necessary a few decades ago, he said.

"In years past, people never thought of a school as being an unsafe place," Kaiser said. "A police officer must always have his gun. To take it away is like sending a fireman into a fire without a fire hose."

SJ-O's Zimmerman said publicity about the shootings and violence could perpetuate the problem.

"I would say the publicity gives the young people ideas," he said. "These are random acts caused by mental health issues by people who want to see their names in the papers. With the Amish school incident ... somebody came off the street and into the school. When parents send their children to school, they expect them to be safe."

Rural schools fit pattern

The dominant scenario for school shootings is that they occur in small rural towns, according to a study by Katherine Newman, a Princeton University professor of sociology who wrote the book "Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings."

Newman said her research of 21 school shootings since the 1970s shows that the attacks have been carried out by young men who find it difficult to be accepted by their peers.

Because these young men live in small towns, which are often socially stable, they do not see their lives changing even when they leave high school, she said. They see a future for themselves of always being outcasts.

"And in all cases, these shootings don't erupt spontaneously," Newman said. "They are planned over a period of time, and it is an effort made by these marginally social young men to change their reputations from losers to that of notorious and alluring.

"They're trying to change the way people see them. Unfortunately, in our culture today, it's better to be Rambo than a dweeb," she said. "They usually don't do this because they're wanting to kill people; they're doing it because they want the other kids to think they're cool."

When major acts of school violence happen, Zimmerman said, parents start to worry if their children are safe.

"It's been an interesting time to be a superintendent," Heritage Superintendent Andrew Larson said. "Shortly after all those issues played out in (the Amish school in) Pennsylvania, we made the decision to lock all our external doors except the front doors, and our parents are relieved."

Making schools safer

"We used to do simple fire drills and tornado drills," Zimmerman said. "Now we practice evacuations and lockdowns during class."

Said Shonk: "The drills used to be for fires and tornadoes. Now we do drills for earthquakes, intruders in the building and other emergencies."

Shonk said each school in Unit 7 has a safety plan that is updated to make sure all are prepared.

"We have a crisis plan committee where community members and law enforcement officers come together to update the plan and to make sure we have thought of everything on paper," he said. "When something happens, you hope you've planned for everything."

Larson said the Heritage district in southeastern Champaign County is planning a teachers' institute in January taught by a sheriff's deputy.

"We review our crisis plans with the staff at least once a year," he said.

Kaiser said all Rantoul school employees are trained on the district's school safety plan when they are hired.

Meta Minton, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said schools are required to have safety plans. The board has held conferences around the state to help schools with the plans.

"We are asking all the school districts to have emergency preparedness plans in place, and we encourage them to work with the local police, fire departments and hospitals in developing their plans for terrorism, shootings or tornadoes," she said.

Shonk said Unit 7 also offered training for teachers and staff on what might be affecting young kids – and what adults can do about it.

"There are big bucks tied to movies, TV, etc., and these shows and games need to stop teaching our kids how to kill," Shonk said. "The influence that they have on our kids' actions is enormous."

Security options

Kaiser said Rantoul's junior high and elementaries have installed cameras outside the main entrances. Visitors must identify themselves through an intercom and be buzzed in by a school staff member.

"We also have surveillance cameras throughout the junior high now," he said. "Doors are being closed instead of being kept open, and closets are locked to limit access to their contents."

Telephones equipped with warning buttons have been installed in each classroom. If a student were to pull a knife on another student, Kaiser said, the teacher can push the button to send a warning to the principal's office.

He said officials at Rantoul Township High search all bags that enter the building.

Zimmerman said St. Joseph-Ogden doesn't have cameras, ID cards or metal detectors.

"We pay more attention to crisis planning and 'what-if' scenarios," he said. "The bottom line is this: If someone wants to get into the school, they are going to get into the school.

"I believe the key is getting to know your students and make them feel an important part of the school society."

Yet, all of SJ-O's interior classroom doors have been rekeyed. And officials implemented a system to lock exterior doors during the day and posted some signs in the windows.

"We've implemented a lockdown plan, and we have practiced it with our students and staff," Zimmerman said. "This year we implemented a system called Family First Alerts – to contact all the parents within five minutes. We have all the parents' and students' telephone numbers on a secure Web site. I can record a message, and the recording is automatically sent to everybody. We will use it when we need to close school early. It's not just for crisis situations."

Maxey said the crisis plan and flip chart she created for SJ-O deals with several crises, including what to do if an intruder is on campus.

"We've also started practicing Code Red drills," she said. "During Code Red, there is a complete lockdown of the school, and the teachers make sure that all the students are far away from windows and doors and out of sight. If the students are in the hallway, they are instructed to go into the nearest classroom."

At Prairieview, St. Joseph Grade School and Ogden Grade School, all the doors are locked, and everyone has to use a door by the superintendent's office, she said. The schools all have video cameras and staff have to unlock that door for visitors. And all visitors must sign in and wear a visitors' badge.

"The more secure we can make our kids, the more at ease the public is going to be," Maxey said.

Shonk said when the new Unit 7 school buildings were designed, the design had security in mind.

"All visitors have to go through the office to enter the schools," he said. "We now have exit doors in each classroom, but intruders have no access to any of those doors from the outside."

Larson said Heritage is installing a new lockdown system on the front doors, with a lock that can withstand 1,500 pounds of pressure.

"We have a 1,500-pound lock with a camera and phone," he said. "Visitors can buzz in and ask for admittance to the building. We are doing whatever measures we need to do to keep our kids safe. We hope to have it in place by the second semester."

Mahomet-Seymour visitors must wear ID badges.

"We don't have a buzzer system, but we lock the entrances the best we can," Oates said.

And though there haven't been any incidents of violence at Paxton-Buckley-Loda schools, Superintendent Cliff McClure said he appreciates whenever parents or students report tips to school administrators.

"We have had tips from time to time," he said. "It doesn't hurt to call – if it doesn't turn out to be anything, then that's even better. The biggest thing you have to do is take everything seriously and continue to listen with an open mind."

McClure also said a new program started this year at PBL High will help connect students to the school community. Topics for the student-faculty groups include coping with stress, developing successful relationships and accepting differences.

In recent years, Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley has added security measures, not in response to any incidents, but rather as "upgrades that occurred as we made changes," Superintendent Chuck Aubry said.

At each of the district's buildings, all exterior doors can only be opened with electronic key cards, to eliminate keys getting into the wrong hands. Video cameras monitor entrances and the high school commons area.

Aubry believes that personal responsibility from parents and students is still key to safety, however.

"We can't protect everyone all the time," he said. "We could have security to the nth degree and still there would be no guarantees."

News-Gazette correspondent Jean Noellsch and Christine Walsh, editor of The County Star, contributed to this report.

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