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posted: 10/24/2011 5:30 AM

Could attack on Elgin teacher have been prevented?

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  • Angel Facio

      Angel Facio

 
By Kerry Lester
Politics and Projects Writer

Laws are in place to protect people like Carolyn Gilbert.

Yet, they failed her.

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In 2008, Gilbert, an Elgin High School family and consumer science teacher, was stabbed in a classroom by Angel Facio, a student under investigation by police in two earlier cases.

Even in a post-Columbine era, some experts say vague state statutes in both the juvenile code and school code designed to facilitate communication actually work to impede information sharing.

Until the law is changed, they warn, troubled teens will continue to slip through the cracks.

A Daily Herald investigation finds that of 40 districts representing more than 350 schools around the state, all but five have what are known as "reciprocal reporting" agreements. They are meant to allow information about students to be shared between school and police officials.

Yet few of these agreements are functioning as they should, data show.

During the last school year, according to information obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, only four of the 40 districts tracked how many times information was shared between police departments and schools.

Officials at only seven districts knew how many of their students had been arrested in any given school year.

In Elgin, school officials did not know Facio, the then-16-year-old Elgin teen who stabbed Gilbert, was under investigation for two earlier violent attacks. Several months before he stabbed Gilbert, Facio was accused of sexually assaulting the 8-year-old sister of a neighborhood friend. He also was accused of assaulting a 13-year-old girl who was walking home from school.

"This is a perfect example about why things need to be done," said state Sen. John Millner, a former juvenile officer and Elmhurst police chief.

Optional sharing

Other states, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Maryland, require detailed information be exchanged between schools and police on incidents involving students within a specific time frame. Illinois' laws are not specific.

Law enforcement agencies are required to communicate with schools if a child is detained by police or charged with a criminal offense. Yet Republican state Senate attorney Mark Warnsing said, "As a practical matter, do the parties get that done? It depends on the leadership of the police agency and the leadership of the school."

While information-sharing agreements are suggested in the state's school code, they are not required. Schools that have them more often than not do not spell out how communication should happen, nor how quickly, nor do they keep any sort of data on student reports and arrests. And police aren't required to communicate to school officials about ongoing investigations at all, as evidenced by the Facio stabbing.

Some experts say there's no need for such communication.

Betsy Clarke, president of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, said, "Teachers have a better sense of who's going to act out, who's a class clown. They really don't need police to tell them who's who in a class."

But John Heiderscheidt, a former Buffalo Grove juvenile officer who now works as safety coordinator for Elgin Area School District U-46, said experience has taught him that what happens to a student in school is not mutually exclusive to what happens to him or her outside school.

A Safe School Initiative Study conducted by the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education analyzed data from 1974 to 2000. It concluded that 63 percent of students who conducted targeted violence never had been in trouble before at school.

That also was the case with Facio. He was a B student with a clean file. Teachers described him as a friendly loner who spent lunch periods catching up on homework.

"We had a very, very sick child," former Principal Dave Smiley said after Gilbert was stabbed. "He hid it well. We were not aware of the level of dysfunction he was experiencing."

A two-way street

Heiderscheidt, who joined the Elgin-based district in 2006, said, "When I first came here, the cops worked in the schools and there was limited communication between them and their departments." The stabbing, Heiderscheidt said, motivated him to ramp up district safety to try to prevent another such attack.

U-46 now has information-sharing agreements in place with police departments in its 11 feeder communities. It tracks incidents involving students -- such as graffiti and truancy or drug use and weapon possession -- at its eight middle schools and six high schools on a monthly basis.

In the 2010-11 school year, 665 of the district's 41,000 students were arrested. Yet reciprocal reporting was used 1,879 times -- proof, Heiderscheidt said, that the agreements work to prevent crime because information sharing allows authorities to intervene in some cases before situations escalate.

Still, U-46 officials said they often believe there is more give than take when it comes to information sharing.

"It's almost mind-boggling to need to have an agreement with every police department (in the area) to get information," Heiderscheidt said.

Without rules in place mandating when an incident should be reported to a school, Heiderscheidt said, U-46 is in a bind.

"Yeah, you're catching up to it," he said. "What I always say to the police chiefs is, 'Say you had a shooting over the weekend, (if) your gang officers didn't even call your school officer, Monday morning, your school officer is going to be in the school without knowing the shooter and the kid that got shot both go to that school, and they have friends who might be planning retaliatory acts.'"

Silent tradition

Working together in the Kendall County state's attorney's office years ago, Dallas Ingemunson and Tom Cross pushed for a revised law.

"I was having a lot of trouble of schools being secretive and not allowing police departments to have access (to files)," Ingemunson said.

As a freshman state representative, Cross worked to put reciprocal-reporting agreements on the books in 1993, but the changes never worked.

Illinois juvenile justice advocates historically have been against them. "The trend of stigmatizing kids based on outside activities is not, in the long run, helpful," said the juvenile justice commission's Clarke.

The history of the juvenile code -- one built around rehabilitation -- values silence. And that's the way many area departments operate.

Hanover Park Deputy Police Chief Tom Cortese said, "Any police department that's in the process of an active investigation of school-aged students, you're not going to reveal information that would jeopardize your investigation."

U-46's Heiderscheidt said, though, that information can and should be shared regardless of whether students are guilty, innocent or even charged with a crime.

Buffalo Grove Deputy Police Chief Steve Husak said years of daily communication with Northwest High School District 214 officials shows agreements help both communities and students.

"There are situations that may not be reported in a police report that juvenile officers may be made aware of because of their officers in the school," Husak said.

Schools, he said, "Are not afraid to call us to make sure that we're aware of things. We feel the sharing of information from us to them and them to us is really, really good."

Heiderscheidt said he believes schools would be safer places if a state law was passed mandating reciprocal reporting with specific criteria about how information should be shared and when.

Some legislators, including Millner, support that idea.

"I think we need to craft legislation, (looking at) what's in the best interest of the child based on the sharing of information," Millner said. "We always know more information is better than less information."

In a prison interview this summer, Facio said he still wasn't sure why he stabbed one of his favorite teachers. He never worried about whether his previous attacks would catch up to him in school.

"I was out there for five months," he said. "They didn't come talk to me."

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