Area schools plan for the worst in wake of more school shootings

Area schools plan for the worst in wake of more school shootings

CHAMPAIGN — After the year's 15th school shooting in which someone was either killed or injured — this time Friday morning in Noblesville, Ind. — Dan Jensen is fresh out of words of wisdom for his 16-year-old daughter.

The Champaign man tried to talk to her about the issue of gun violence at large after a March massacre left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

He passed along his best ideas for ways to hide — how to duck and camouflage herself using school supplies — in the wake of other incidents across the country.

But after Benton, Ky. (16 shot), then Sante Fe, Texas (10 killed), then Friday, he wondered if there was any point to it all.

"As a parent, you try and talk to your kids about this stuff," he said. "But after a while, there's not much you can say."

"You're not really giving them anything to work with. I can't be the only one who feels this way."

He's not: As families struggle with what to tell their children, school districts across the area are grappling with the issue of gun violence as well, some implementing new safety initiatives or beefing up ones already in place.

The revisions are happening in rural and urban districts alike, but the approaches differ. While larger schools are focusing on having the most up-to-date security features in newer buildings, Piatt County's DeLand-Weldon and Bement have both adopted resolutions that could lead to teachers carrying guns.

 

'Relieved parents'

First-year Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Lindsay Hall considers herself "fortunate" to have been able to oversee construction of a new building in the district. The $13 million project is largely funded by revenue from Champaign County's schools facility sales tax and will house young children — those in kindergarten through second grade.

Planning a new school in these times allows for installing safety measures that might be more challenging to implement in an older school.

"In this day and age, when you're fortunate enough to build a new building, school safety is going to be a huge part of that conversation, and it only seems to get more and more important," she said.

Points of pride in the building include hallways that have virtually no nooks, crannies or hidden spaces, allowing for what Hall called "direct lines of sight."

"We've got long hallways where you can look a long way down and have a good, open view of who's in the hallway," she said. "There's not a lot of twists and turns and hidden spaces."

Off the hallways are safe rooms, though Hall said building staff wouldn't refer to them that way. In the narrow rooms, wooden enclosures with hooks are where children hang their bags and coats each day. But in an emergency — be it severe weather or an intruder in the building — the doors shut and lock and the cinder-block walls provide for extra solidity.

"First of all, the practical use is that every day, kids are in here hanging up their coats," Hall said. "That's the vast, vast majority of the time — and we hope all the time — what they're going to be used for.

"If, in the unfortunate circumstance that we might have an emergency, this might serve as just a familiar spot. In addition to wanting to keep them safe, we also want to keep them calm. For a young kid, this is an area they're familiar with; it wouldn't seem strange or unusual to come here."

Additionally, Hall noted that the doors to both Middletown Prairie Elementary and the new building only open to the office. An office worker must buzz in a visitor, who couldn't walk into the school without being cleared first.

For older buildings like those in the Bement school district, that kind of feature must be added on, which Superintendent Sheila Greenwood said the district will do over the summer.

"We've had the buzz-in system for four years — we're just taking it to the next step now," she said. "We're trying to get to the point where we're as ready as you can be. Initially when we started the lock-in system four years ago, I thought we would have a lot of questions, but in actuality we had a lot of relieved parents."

 

Sharing SROs

When the crown jewel of Unit 4's $183.4 million referendum is built, the new Champaign Central High will come with top-of-the-line security-camera upgrades. But most of the recent security-related discussions at the school have focused on communication issues.

"We have a crisis committee made up," Central Principal Joe Williams said. "We've been reviewing concerns of the staff. Mostly, they're centered around communication issues during a crisis — so if we were saying 'meet in the world language hallway,' does everyone know where that is?"

Williams said more signage and room numbering will be added over the summer to address those concerns, which other districts share.

Among the new initiatives underway at Heritage High School, Principal Tom Davis said, is investing in new radios so staff can hear each other better during drills — or in the case of an actual emergency.

"The previous radios were three to four years old," he said. "We'll have those in place by next school year."

Davis said the district may also consider expanded school resource officer coverage, such as sharing one with St. Joseph-Ogden. That's becoming more common around the area — plans also call for a police officer to soon split time in Piatt County's four districts — Bement, Cerro Gordo, DeLand and Monticello.

"Since we're larger, we're going to have the officer for two days a week," Monticello Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said. "DeLand and Bement or Cerro Gordo will have them for one. It will be random — every couple of weeks, we'll get a message from the (Piatt County) sheriff telling us."

That randomness, he said, is by design — someone posing a threat won't know when to avoid any school on any particular day. But the in-school police officer's purpose will go further than providing protection, Zimmerman said.

"The SRO is not there to stop a school shooter," he said. "However, if they happen to be there when there was a school shooter, you hope they would act just like up in Dixon, where the SRO shot the intruder.

"But the chances that the SRO would be there when that happened ... I don't know what the odds would be for that. They're going to be there to educate kids and build relationships."

 

Arming teachers

Among the most controversial school safety ideas proposed nationally in recent months calls for putting guns in the hands of teachers. Both Bement and DeLand-Weldon's school boards recently adopted resolutions that would allow the districts to determine whether that happens.

While the resolution is supported by gun-rights activists, district leaders say it's less about an individual's right to carry and more about basic protection.

"A lot of people misunderstood that resolution to mean we were supporting teachers' conceal carry," Greenwood said. "It was not that at all."

If there was an incident that required police intervention, such as a shooting, she said, it would take at least 30 minutes for police to arrive to her school. That's what prompted the adoption of the resolution in Bement by a 4-3 vote.

A half-hour wait "would be a long time to be in that position," Greenwood said. "They may never decide to have a teacher or administrator have conceal carry. (But) at least then it's up to them."

Rick Noble, who runs Adventure Tactical Training in Farmer City, said he wishes more schools — particularly those in rural areas — would adopt similar resolutions.

"I've even seen a superintendent say 'We can have emergency personnel here in 10 minutes,'" Noble said. "So I asked, 'What 50 to 80 students are you going to let that shooter shoot in 10 minutes? He didn't have an answer. It's because he thinks guns shouldn't be in schools."

Lauren Quinn, who leads the Illinois chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, disagrees.

Arming teachers, she said, "is basically an invitation for more problems. Basically, we know that even though a school may have the best intentions, these guns are going to be out and in classrooms so a kid could get their hands on it. You may have one particular teacher among many who has some training, but largely, why would we expect them to have that training?"

Noble counters that no one expects every teacher in any school to carry, which has often been misinterpreted in the debate over this issue.

"This is strictly a want," he said. "I would never say: 'You need to carry.' This teacher has to come and go, 'I want to carry. I want to take the extra training.' Nobody could tell me with any data that not arming teachers is the best thing to do."

 

Larger issues

The weekly headlines about another shooting haven't made Debbie Larson worry more about her children's safety. But after shots were fired outside Central on a Friday night last December as the crowd let out following a boys' basketball game against Danville, she decided to join the local Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense chapter, founded by Lauren Quinn.

"It's not that I'm afraid to send my kids to school," she said. "The (Unit 4) schools my kids have gone to, I've always felt they're pretty secure. Every time I've popped into Edison to do PTSA stuff, there's always adults around in the hallways."

While schools try to limit the impact that a potential shooter would have, Larson and Quinn are focusing on the larger issue of gun control, which state and national lawmakers determine.

"I have a kid in day care and in kindergarten," Quinn said. "I'm not personally opposed to measures that would make them safer in school. I'm not against safety measures, but it's absolutely not the main priority."

Jansen is all for measures that lead to safer schools, as well. But he, too, believes the solution to stopping school shootings is much bigger than whether there's a buzz-in system in place.

He refers to politicians who don't act on gun control as "spineless" and "bought and paid for," and fears nothing will be done to prevent the next incident, or the one after that, and the one after that.

Still, he said, "there's always room for hope. That's why we get up in the morning."

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