Unit 4 board

From left to right: Unit 4 Superintendent Shelia Boozer and board members Amy Armstrong and Kathy Shannon listen in as Elizabeth Sotiropoulos (far right) asks a question at Monday night’s meeting.

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CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign school board voted to allow the installation of permanent metal detectors in its two high schools at Monday evening's meeting.

The board also signed off on altering the district’s language around student searches and seizures, permitting the specific use of metal detectors on school property.

The changes follow an introduction over the last month of mobile metal detectors at school events and the starts of school days.

“This was not an easy decision,” Superintendent Shelia Boozer said at Monday’s meeting. “All the conversations from the students who are living in trauma outside of the schools and bringing things to school because they’re afraid — they’re looking for safety, looking for security, looking for some protection. Talking to those students made me realize we have to do something different and we have to do it now.”

According to Boozer, the new security measures are a direct response to recent incidents around Centennial regarding gun use. Both Centennial and Central’s principals are on board with permanent metal detectors, she said.

“We’ve had shootings around our school, we’ve had BB guns in our school, we’ve had a student who was arrested because he was seen to have a weapon on him,” she said. “Kids told me that they want to feel safe in their schools, and it’s kids that deserve to feel safe in their schools. Several family members have sent emails asking we do this.”

There’s still plenty of logistical work ahead, but Monday’s vote gives the district the go-ahead to start working on the new security measures.

Centennial introduced the use of mobile metal detectors at the beginning of the school day on Sept. 22, a week after shots were fired north of the campus, and two weeks after a student brought a gun to the school.

Champaign Central had its first school-day experience with metal detector wanding last Tuesday.

One of the main reasons the district cited for the change: manpower.

“The mobile devices are fine, but it requires about 20 humans each time to make it work, and security firm, the administrators in the building, and my whole cabinet,” Boozer said. “I’ve searched bags, talked to kids but that’s a lot of time and effort and kids are missing out on their class time.”

Valarian Couch, Unit 4's director of information systems and network security, estimates the new system will take about four employees to handle day-to-day, mainly from the school’s security firm and hall monitors.

Unit 4 will conduct interviews for a security firm to last through the rest of the academic year on Wednesday. The district voted to hire security officers from AGB Investigative Services in August, to last through the first quarter. 

Unit 4 will also pay to have non-law enforcement search dogs, to conduct detection for materials like gunpowder and drugs.

Specially trained dogs from local law enforcement agencies have been used at Unit 4 schools previously to search for illegal substances.

“The dogs we’re looking at would be more inside. We haven’t gotten through all the logistics yet, but it’s more the inside, looking for things,” said Ken Kleber, Unit 4's assistant superintendent of human resources and organizational effectiveness.

After Monday’s policy updates, school officials are also no longer required to attempt to contact parents or guardians prior to searching a student’s personal property that isn’t currently in the student’s possession, such as bags or purses left in a locker.

Building principals must still announce any dog-based searches to parents and children. Also required: signs noting that surveillance extends to school parking lots.

“The narrative that our schools are unsafe has to change,” Boozer said. “Looking what’s happening across our country and even right here in Champaign, it’s time, and not knowing what’s happening is making people uncomfortable.”

Unit 4 staff answered about an hour's worth of questions on the policy from board members.

“This is not a great idea, but I’m glad there’s an idea,” board member Heather Vazquez said. “I want it to be very short-lived.”

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