Prompted by a Daily Herald investigation, suburban lawmakers have filed legislation aimed at helping schools keep incidents like the 2008 stabbing of an Elgin High School teacher from happening again.
The proposed legislation, written by state Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, and state Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican, would refine the state's school code and the juvenile court act to allow more information to be shared by schools and police if a student is the subject of a police investigation or has been taken into custody.
The legislation stipulates that the information be kept separate from a student's official school record "and shall not be a public record."
It also provides that the information could be used only by school and law enforcement officials to "aid in the proper rehabilitation of the child and to protect the safety of students and employees in the school."
John Heiderscheidt, school safety coordinator in Elgin Area School District U-46, called the proposed law one that "is driving right at what the gap is."
"This will create efficiencies in the communications between police and schools when it comes to the best things to do for students in all situations," he said.
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 school districts representing more than 350 schools around the state, all but five have what are known as "reciprocal reporting" agreements, 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 2010-11 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.
Gilbert lost an eye in the attack but has since returned to teaching at Elgin High.
Millner, a former juvenile officer and Elmhurst police chief, called the Facio case a "a perfect example about why things need to be done," though far from the only example.
Following the Daily Herald investigation, Mundelein Police Chief Ray Rose and Mundelein school officials began meeting last fall, bringing state lawmakers into talks seeking stronger rules governing exchange of information about students. Juvenile justice advocates, some of whom opposed a blanket change to the law out of concerns for privacy, were also at the table.
Still, some oppose a change in the law. ACLU Communications Director Ed Yohnka said his organization is concerned that the legislation would allow for "too much information" to get shared.
"This expands the information, it expands the crime beyond just arrests to investigations," he said. "It really is something that's particularly harrowing for many students and opens the possibility for abuse."
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.
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.
The legislation is awaiting debate by a House committee, where it would need to be approved before it could move onto the House floor.
In the past few days, several suburban lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have joined on as co-sponsors, including Democratic representatives Keith Farnham, of Elgin, and Jack Franks of Marengo, and Republican representatives Ed Sullivan, of Mundelein, and Robert Pritchard of Sycamore.
"We have to raise it up a level and start talking and really realizing that we have these very real instances throughout the country," Sente said. "Kids are combusting and doing tragic things. But if we better paid attention, we would have a greater chance of (preventing them)."