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updated: 1/28/2013 4:46 AM

Suburban schools not ready for armed teachers

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  • Elgin Police Det. Bill Wood has been the school resource officer at Elgin High School for the past four years. He's an avid supporter of specialized training to prepare lone officers to respond in critical instances where there is no time to wait for backup.

       Elgin Police Det. Bill Wood has been the school resource officer at Elgin High School for the past four years. He's an avid supporter of specialized training to prepare lone officers to respond in critical instances where there is no time to wait for backup.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin police Det. Bill Wood greets many of the more than 2,500 Elgin High School students by name as they head to class during a passing period Thursday. He supports specialized training for officers stationed in schools.

       Elgin police Det. Bill Wood greets many of the more than 2,500 Elgin High School students by name as they head to class during a passing period Thursday. He supports specialized training for officers stationed in schools.
    Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 

Shortly after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, concerned parents started calling local educators to see what more could be done to keep their kids safe.

One DuPage County mom asked if her second-grader would be allowed to wear body armor in school. A McHenry County parent suggested armed guards. And in Kane County, one parent advocated arming teachers or administrators.

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Those are the extreme, but not isolated, reactions to the Dec. 14 attack that killed 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn.

The notion of arming teachers is not being endorsed by suburban school officials contacted by the Daily Herald.

"The carrying, storage and use of firearms are not in the realm of expertise of educational professionals," said Gary Chester, safety officer for Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300. "School systems that consider arming their own staff members assume huge issues with liability and responsibility."

Across the suburbs, educators have spent the last month assessing their safety plans, setting up new training sessions and reassuring parents. At the DuPage County Regional Office of Education, educators discussed strategies to make school buildings safer. But Regional School Superintendent Darlene Ruscitti said the response was only lukewarm when it came to the idea of arming teachers or adding armed guards, the latter a step suggested by the National Rifle Association in the follow-up to the Sandy Hook shooting.

"The consensus was that we don't want to have our schools feel like prisons or jails," she said.

In McHenry County, police officers serve in schools but are not armed. Many schools in Kane, DuPage, Lake and suburban Cook counties, though, have local police officers working in middle and high schools every day, carrying the same handguns as police officers patrolling the streets.

While armed school resource officers have become a fairly standard presence through partnerships between schools and police departments, calls to more than a dozen suburban districts revealed virtually no interest in arming teachers or administrators, nor in increasing the number of armed security personnel.

"Schools have been the safest place where kids can go to learn, and teachers can go to teach," said John Heiderscheidt, Elgin Area School District U-46 safety coordinator. "Before Columbine, after Columbine, before Sandy Hook, after Sandy Hook. There are bad things that happen and there's always a possibility, although remote, but schools are still the safest places where kids can learn and teachers can go to do their work."

True as that may be, some find the NRA's idea about armed guards an attractive one as they brainstorm ways to reduce mass shootings.

Armed guards -- or even armed teachers -- are fine in schools as long as they are properly trained and qualified, said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

"The only people who can ever stop a crime are the intended victims," he said. "That would include a teacher or an administrator."

In fact, gun rights activists are applauding the decision by a district in downstate Washington to consider arming a handful of administrators. Washington Community High School officials announced administrators might be trained as auxiliary police officers so they could be allowed to carry concealed handguns at the school.

"It's a great idea," said Valinda Rowe, a spokeswoman for IllinoisCarry.com, a website dedicated to getting a right to carry law passed in Illinois. "The current situation that we have is not working. It's not protecting our children."

Despite having armed police liaison officers at a number of suburban schools, districts say it wouldn't be cost-effective to hire security to watch all their buildings.

And while arming teachers or administrators would be cheaper, it's still illegal to carry concealed weapons in Illinois.

In December, a federal appeals court panel ruled that the state's ban is unconstitutional. It gave Illinois until early June to pass a law allowing residents to carry concealed weapons. Attorney General Lisa Madigan has appealed the decision and wants the court to rehear the case.

Rowe says she has heard from school board members throughout the state who are intrigued by the teachers-as-cops idea but added that none are from the Chicago area. In the meantime, local districts say they are more focused on being "extra vigilant" about their security measures, including locking most doors, adding new security cameras and implementing strict sign-in procedures. McHenry High School District 156 now asks everyone entering the building to show an ID at its west campus. The county's regional superintendent, Leslie Schermerhorn, said the regional education office is looking into getting a Facility Information Management System, like Chicago Public Schools, where the floor plans of every school building in the county will be updated annually in a database accessible to emergency responders.

The Elgin Police Department, which already has a similar database, has a new training session scheduled next month to equip its school resource officers with skills for single officer response. Detective Bill Wood, an officer at Elgin High School, said the trend in police departments following the Sandy Hook shooting will be specialized training on how to confront a crisis alone, instead of waiting for backup.

"For years the school resource officers were just kind of a branch of the police department that was off on their own," Wood said. "We followed along with everybody else's training. But we need to be trained differently than the patrol officer going to a call."

Police officials could not release specific details of the training, as school officials hesitated to reveal too much about their safety plans.

Tom Petersen, director of community relations at Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, said the district has worked hard to make parents and students feel safe without going into too much detail on safety procedures.

"It's such a delicate situation," Petersen said. "You can't give a blueprint out to what you're doing."

School resource officer training is planned for districts across the region, as well as workshops to prepare educators in the first minutes of a crisis situation when law enforcement is en route.

Overall, districts across the suburbs have expressed complete faith in local law enforcement's response times and expertise in handling emergencies.

But still, many realize the limits to the precautions that can be taken.

"Unfortunately, we're in a day and age when presidents and popes can be shot," Lombard Elementary District 44 Superintendent Jim Blanche said. "What we have to do is make every reasonable precaution that we can. Hopefully from there, things are going to work out."

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