Practice may prevent tragedy
A shooting in local schools would be an unthinkable horror, but it's something officials are now planning for, after a change in state law.
Next week, Urbana schools will go through surprise drills to practice what students, teachers and staff members will do if there's an intruder in their buildings.
Champaign and Danville will also do similar drills, which are now required after a change in state law this summer, but students will not be present for those, district administrators said.
In Urbana, the school district wanted to get what Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum called "a baseline" for what to expect if a school shooting happens.
"We want our teachers to make informed decisions," Ivory-Tatum said, and that will require them to think on their feet. They will be able to do so more realistically with students present, she said.
And it will give students a chance to learn about listening to teacher instructions about whether to leave their classrooms or to stay, depending on the situation. Plus, it will give students and parents a chance to talk about the drills and the current events behind them at home, as well.
"We practice fire drills so routinely and so systematically," Ivory-Tatum said, and the goal is to make this drill routine, too.
The drill is not meant to alarm students, Ivory-Tatum said.
"Our goal is to prepare kids, not scare them," she said. "We want them to feel empowered, as well."
Urbana police Lt. Richard Surles said parents and students should be aware that the school district will work with police to conduct the drills, and they'll include uniformed police officers in schools.
"There will not be any unusual noises or sights during the drills," Surles said, and no one will be at risk. "Unfortunately, critical events in or near schools nationwide have become a reality. We should prepare our children so that they understand what they need to do in order to be safe. Part of that preparation should and must include these drills."
Ivory-Tatum said she or Superintendent Don Owen will be present at all the drills, as well.
Ivory-Tatum said the school district has had a committee working with the Urbana Police Department for more than a year, to look at schools' emergency plans and make sure they're consistent among buildings.
When the new state law came into effect, Ivory-Tatum said, the school district reconvened that committee to decide how to handle the required drill.
Ivory-Tatum said it was a "logical next step" to conduct drills while students are at school.
Even Urbana Adult Education and the school district's central office will go through the drills, Ivory-Tatum said. Once they're complete, the police department will give the school district feedback on what it could do better.
Surles said everyone involved in the drills will learn something as a result.
"Those lessons learned through the drills are the reason that the state Legislature mandated these drills be conducted by all schools in Illinois," he said.
Police have been doing school security checks at Urbana schools for the last five years to make sure they're not open to unauthorized visitors, Surles said.
"It is clear from the security checks and the resulting conversations with the principals of all of the schools and the superintendent's office that the Urbana school district takes the security of its students, staff and visitors seriously and always with an eye for continued improvement," Surles said.
Orlando Thomas, the Champaign school district's director of achievement and student services, said the Champaign school board Monday will consider changes to its safety and crisis plan policy to allow for the drills.
The policy says the drill can happen "on days and times when students are not present in the building."
Thomas said that at least in the first year of such drills, they will happen when students aren't in Champaign's schools.
"Because this is uncharted waters for certainly our district and (others), we are going to utilize that option to not have students there," Thomas said. "We will be conducting our drills on a day or a time when students are not present."
He said the district will begin planning the drills with the help of Champaign police next week and has the entire school year to actually conduct them.
Thomas said planning will start at the district level, and then he will work with elementary, middle and high schools to show them what the drill will entail.
"We want to make sure this drill is meaningful and most importantly, prepares our staff," Thomas said, adding that the school district and police department will probably also look at other districts' drills.
Thomas said it's possible that students will be present for school shooting drills in the future, possibly as soon as next year.
Danville Superintendent Mark Denman said that in his district, drills with law enforcement officials don't happen when students are present.
In addition, the Danville Police Department is in its third year of offering a Saturday-morning training session. Each building principal was asked to announce the drill in his or her building, Denman said, so representatives from all buildings can attend. Last year, about 80 people attended, he said.
"It's a lengthier presentation than what's provided in (each school) building," he said.