Working to make schools the safe place
Lawmakers, school officials seek changes to reporting law
Mundelein Police Chief Ray Rose has known for years there was a problem in the way information was shared between the village's schools and its police department.
Despite efforts from both sides, communication about teens in trouble sometimes fell through the cracks, potentially putting others at risk.
A recent incident led Rose to push for that to change.
A student, involved in a domestic dispute at home, ran out of his house with a knife in hand and onto school property while a football game was going on. No one was hurt. But it got Rose thinking about how, if the incident had unfolded differently, the school might have been oblivious.
"Even if he hadn't gone to the football game, and he was involved in this incident on Saturday at home, does the school not have some right to know?" asked Rose, calling existing state laws about information exchanges involving students "completely inconsistent."
As a result of that, and after reading a Daily Herald investigation into the problem, Rose and Mundelein school officials began meeting this fall, then brought state lawmakers into talks seeking stronger rules governing exchange of information about students. Juvenile justice advocates, some of whom oppose a blanket change to the law out of concerns for privacy, are also at the table.
"Years ago we used to talk about schools being the safe place. That's questionable now," Rose said. Because specific information sharing about students isn't required, "We don't know what they've been involved in."
The Daily Herald investigation — prompted by the 2008 stabbing of an Elgin High School teacher by a 16-year-old student — found 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 past school year, according to information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, only four of the 40 school 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 Angel Facio, the then-16-year-old teen who stabbed family and consumer science teacher Carolyn Gilbert in 2008, 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.
State Sen. John Millner, a former juvenile officer and Elmhurst police chief, called the Facio case a "a perfect example about why things need to be done."
Some juvenile justice experts are against adding communication requirements to the books since some sharing is already required. Law enforcement agencies are supposed to communicate with schools if a child is detained by police or charged with a crime. Anything more, some experts say, would further violate teens' privacy.
"Teachers have a better sense of who's going to act out, who's a class clown," Betsy Clarke, president of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, told the Daily Herald last month. "They really don't need police to tell them who's who in a class."
Facio's case is far from isolated, Rose said.
On Nov. 22, a Lake County judge sentenced 19-year-old Edwin Hernandez to 80 years in prison for a 2009 firebombing of a house that killed a 12-year-old in Mundelein and injured his mother and sister. Hernandez's older brother, Elver Hernandez, was sentenced to 84 years in August.
Rose said the brothers were known for acting out in middle and high school, though not to the same degree, but police didn't know that until it was too late. Had they known, they would have possibly intervened before such a horrific act had taken place.
"How," Rose asked, "do we have those gaps? If we have a kid that's involved in a violent incident or the threat of a violent incident at home, does that mean that he turns it off when he goes to school? Absolutely not."
Right now, in Illinois, while information-sharing agreements between schools and police are suggested in the state's school code, they are not required. Schools that have them usually do not spell out how communication should happen, nor how quickly, nor do they keep any sort of data on student police reports and arrests. And police aren't required to communicate to school officials about ongoing investigations at all, as evidenced by the Facio stabbing.
Elgin Area School District U-46, where the attack by Facio occurred, now has information-sharing agreements in place with police departments in its 11 communities. While it diligently tracks police incidents involving students, there are no rules mandating when police should report an incident to a school, and some cases fall through the cracks.
"We have an opportunity to put a safety plan in place, communicate with parents about what's known, get everybody on the same page," said U-46 school safety coordinator John Heiderscheidt, who is a proponent of a change in the law.
In Mundelein, with residents attending several public high schools — Libertyville-Vernon Hills District 128, Mundelein District 120 and Stevenson District 125 — Rose says there is inconsistency in how information is shared by police from one district to another. No information-sharing agreement is in place with Carmel Catholic High School, also in town.
Other states, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Maryland, require detailed information be exchanged between schools and police on incidents involving students and say how quickly it must be done. Illinois' laws are not as specific.
As a result, even how reliably schools are told if a child is detained or charged with a crime, which the law requires, often depends on the agreements — and relationships — in place.
"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," Republican state Senate attorney Mark Warnsing said.
Right now, nobody's checking that.
Heiderscheidt said information can and should be shared regardless of whether students are guilty, innocent or even charged with a crime.
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.
But ACLU Illinois Director of Communications Ed Yohnka says his organization opposes "the mandatory reporting requirements of everything, the things that don't pose a danger or a threat within the school."
Doing so, he said, only extends the possibility for students to be punished inside school for outside transgressions.
"If you're going to make a change, one of the questions we want to ask is what makes that change effective, what makes that change efficient," Yohnka said
Yohnka said his group is open to more communication in cases where a student could be in danger, but not just "expanding the haystack so the needle becomes impossible to find."
While the various groups have yet to agree on a solution, they can agree on a goal, said Democratic state Rep. Carol Sente of Vernon Hills.
Millner, who is not seeking re-election in 2012, and Sente say they hope to use the information learned at the Mundelein meetings as they sit down to write legislation, which they plan to file in the spring session.
"Senator Millner and I are really committed to finding a way to make schools safer. You try and find out where people agree. If you can agree on a goal, then you can go about a way to achieve it," Sente said.
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