IASB Deputy Executive Director Ben Schwarm answers the questions in this issue of The Illinois School Board Journal.
Question: What safety steps has Illinois taken since the school shooting in Florida?
Answer: Responses all across the country were broad and swift after the tragic February shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Gun access, “hardening of facilities” for school buildings and grounds, enhanced mental health services, funding for additional school resource officers, and arming school staff members are all issues that have been brought to the table for discussion.
Illinois was no different. The General Assembly quickly approved legislation for tighter regulations on the licensure of gun dealers, but the measure was vetoed by Governor Bruce Rauner. Other bills considered in the Capitol address waiting periods before purchasing “assault rifles,” a prohibition on “bump stocks,” and amending the School Safety Drill Act to require students to be present on days in which law enforcement, or active shooter drills, are being conducted. IASB staff members were part of a select group of members of the Illinois Terrorism Task Force (ITTF) brought together to recommend school safety enhancements.
Question: What did the ITTF working group recommend?
Answer: First, the group formed a consensus that strict, prescriptive requirements on school districts would be counter-productive. Mandating new doors, locks, windows, security systems, or school resource officers without providing the funding would be unfair to those school districts and communities with limited resources and manpower. Instead, a series of recommended best practices was published to help guide school districts on how best to use the resources they have available. The recommendations came in three areas: behavioral threat assessments, hardening of facilities, and response protocols in schools.
Many schools already employ threat assessment teams, and this practice is embedded in IASB’s Policy Reference Education Subscription Service (PRESS) safety protocol, but it is strongly recommended that all schools implement them. Further, it is recommended that student handbooks encourage students and parents to participate freely in these programs. Most importantly, it is recommended that Illinois establish regional behavioral threat assessment teams, comprised of professionals in mental health, law enforcement, and other disciplines trained in this area, which can assist school districts (only at the request of the school district) unable to field their own team. The ITTF and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency will be working to secure the funding necessary to field the teams.
Other recommendations include the proper protocols to share information between schools and law enforcement, tips for more open student reporting of threats, and a statewide student school safety tip line manned by the Illinois State Police.
The working group’s recommendations for safety improvements to school buildings is a user-friendly five-layer plan based on priorities (for example, do not start with adding a video security system if there are not proper locks on the doors). The tiered priorities begin with proper doors, locks, windows in layer one; and end with metal detectors and school resource officers in layer five. Also important is the recommendation that regional site assessment teams be formed (only at the request of the school district) so administrators can have safety professionals walk their buildings and grounds and offer tips for better security. Again, IEMA will be working to put these teams in place at no cost to local school districts.
Finally, the working group highlighted best practices for high-quality emergency plans and safety drills. The entire list of recommendations can be found on the IASB website.
Question: What is IASB doing to enhance school safety?
Answer: IASB has long been involved in the issue of school safety, beginning with its heavy involvement in the drafting of the School Safety Drill Act in 2005. Staff has been appointed and active in the ITTF, including the subcommittees and working groups of the ITTF involving school safety; and the legislative School Security and Standards Task Force. This fall, IASB will be coordinating the third annual School Safety and Security Seminar in conjunction with the Joint Annual Conference of school board members, superintendents, and school business officials. Staff members have participated as panelists for multiple school safety events, along with officials from law enforcement, fire departments, safety consulting firms, and state legislators.
IASB has created a portal — www.iasb.com/safety/ — on its website devoted to school safety. In one stop, school board members and administrators can find: a quick overview of school safety best practices, communications tips for school threats, the ITTF Working Group recommendations, the School Security and Standards Task Force Report, the safety program from the Illinois School and Campus Safety Program, and the Illinois State Police School Safety and Information Sharing Program.