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In wake of school shootings, Southern Illinois educators weigh additional safety measures with budget realities

Carbondale Southern Illinoisan

Friday, March 2, 2018  |  Article  |  ISAAC SMITH The Southern

, Education--Elementary and Secondary (36)
CARBONDALE — With the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead, and less than a week before, a shooting in Benton, Kentucky, which killed two and injured 19, an impassioned discussion has erupted about school safety and the disturbing trend of school violence in the U.S.

Calls from one side demand a return to assault weapons bans and a boycott of the National Rifle Association — the lobbying group responsible for much of the pro-gun sentiment that has permeated the American conservative movement since the 1970s — while others are demanding better age restrictions on the purchase of firearms, and still others are calling for some teachers to brandish weapons to help keep schools safe.

Should there be more guards at schools?

More metal detectors?

Routine, but random, checks of students coming to school?

The voices are loud, the rhetoric heated. The spotlight is hot on lawmakers to do something.

“It’s definitely a concern that weighs on our mind everyday,” Matt Donkin, Frankfort Unit District 168 superintendent, said.

The news is never easy to hear — when a headline comes up that another school has fallen victim, Marion High School Principal Joey Ohnesorge said, “your gut tightens up.” The next step for his school, he said, is just to review and reflect with staff what their plan is.

Like many teachers, Ohnesorge said making connections with students is key, and so is catching early warning signs.

Seeing these early signs for potentially violent behavior, and quickly finding resources to help these students is a vital part in preventing problems in schools, experts said. This has also come up nationally, as several red flags were not acted upon by law enforcement regarding the Parkland shooter.

One program that the Illinois Education Association is pushing would address this outright. The free-to-schools Know Me, Know My Name program was developed by family therapist Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter was a victim of the Newtown school shooting.

The program’s goal is to find students who may slip through the cracks and not regularly interact with school staff, and develop a plan to reach out to those students and form a connection for them at school.

Metropolis Elementary School has adopted and adapted this program in the last two years. Jacqueline Hodge, technical assistant of special education at MES, has been there since the program started, and said they are focusing in on students who have experienced trauma and might need an adult in their lives. They meet with a designated teacher before school starts.

“We don’t look at their grades … we just kind of check in with them,” Hodge said. She said it’s been a great success and has grown organically, with students referring other students. She said she has seen it personally improve the lives of students.

Changes in disciplinary policy may also be working toward this goal of getting students help. Senate Bill 100, a state law that took effect in the fall of 2016, aimed to increase the number of interventions schools were placing between troubled students and a long-term suspension or expulsion.

According to Illinois Education Association president Kathi Griffin, the bill was originally introduced to correct a disparity between the number of white students suspended and expelled and the number of black and Latino students given the same punishment.

The bill calls for more unified disciplinary measures to be in place in schools that create more logical punishments — it banned the use of “zero-tolerance policies.”

However, at first blush it could seem it also took away a schools ability to quickly deal with a child who is escalating his or her behavior, or at least that’s how some have read it.

“... out-of-school suspension of longer than 3 days, expulsions, and disciplinary removals to alternative schools may be used only if other appropriate and available behavioral and disciplinary interventions have been exhausted,” the bill reads, adding that the student must also pose a threat to students or teachers and disrupt the classroom.

Daniel Booth, Carbondale High School’s principal, said after he read the bill for the first time, he thought it was trying to hamstring administrators. He even called State Rep. Will Davis, D-Springfield, who sponsored the bill to talk about it.

“Why are you trying to keep us from suspending kids?” Booth said he asked Davis. He was told that was not the intention of the bill; the intention was to ensure students who need help actually get it.

Griffin agreed, and said this doesn’t prevent teachers from acting quickly in a serious situation. A student must have acted out in a serious way, such as bringing a weapon or making a credible threat, to be immediately suspended.

“The student can be immediately suspended, although, law enforcement would likely intervene, and he wouldn’t be coming to school anyway. The District could legitimately state there are no other “appropriate interventions” that need to be exhausted under these or similar facts,” Griffin wrote in an emailed statement. However, the process does get longer when the offense is a bit less severe.

“It does hinder what we do on a daily basis if there is a degree of immediacy (needed), however what it also does is it ensures that we have done our due diligence as a school district,” said Larry Lovel, superintendent for Tri-Co school district.

The real hangup with SB100, though, is the availability of resources and “interventions.” Griffin said while the bill is good, uneven funding can put schools trying to comply in a tough place.
The money problem

All of the teachers and school administrators interviewed for this story had ideas about how safety could be improved, and how preventative measures with students experiencing hardships could be increased. But, each of them said money could be a stumbling block.

Senate Bill 100 is an example.

“When you pass a law that fundamentally changes the way schools operate — no matter how well intentioned the legislation — and you pass it with no funding attached to train teachers, support staff and administrators there are going to be consequences,” Griffin wrote in an email.

Lovel said this is the exact boat he is in. As a rural school, his budget is not near that of what a Carbondale or a Marion school district might have, and as a result, the services he is able to offer students are fewer. The recently passed school funding reform bill was designed to help close this gap, but as of yet schools have not felt the effects of the funding change.

With the state of school budgets, making other changes specific to security are no easy task, either.

“If you try and hire a school resource officer, that costs money,” Pope County High School principal Ryan Fritch said. “A lot of the school infrastructure upgrades you’d like to make for security purposes are hard to do because the funding structure isn’t there.”

He said they would consider adding things like metal detectors at the doors, adding and upgrading security cameras, but because the state is still not funding his district adequately, they are having to make due with what they have.

Even the issue of arming teachers, of which President Donald Trump recently spoke in favor, has a price tag. Would schools who are forced to decide between hiring an art teacher or giving raises to teachers be able or willing to pay for teachers to be trained and to reimburse for purchased firearms?

This is one question that schools won’t have to answer quickly, though. According to Griffin, significant changes to law — like arming teachers, which the IEA would oppose, she pointed out — would have to be made for schools to consider putting a gun on any teacher’s hip.

“If the law were to be changed, it would also require collective bargaining to discuss the way the new law would change working conditions,” Griffin said of the idea.

Doing the best with what there is

Even though all schools may not have a lot of money to play with in terms of rehabilitative services for students, it doesn't stop them from trying and making do.

“The only issue is we don’t have something else on site,” Lovel said of his options in dealing with students who have behavior issues. He said they do not have a “school within a school” to send these kids. He said they do have a counselor and even a social worker, but at least the latter is only available three days a week — this is in contrast to Carbondale’s five counselors and one social worker that are in-house five days a week.

Lovel said this leaves them with making the effort themselves as teachers and administrators to reach out to their students.

“We are visible and we connect with students as soon as they walk in the door,” Lovel said. “We have to include our faculty and staff because we do not have a full-time social worker.”
Lovel and Fritch said they do have one advantage — they are small, tight-knit schools.

“We know our kids personally here,” Fritch said.

“There’s still something special to those smaller districts to truly knowing those children,” Lovel said, adding that knowing not just the student, but also their families, allows them to spot any problems that may arise.