Local News

Amid Uvalde, DeKalb area educators, police chief talk school safety

DeKALB - It’s been three weeks since 19 children and two teachers were gunned down in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and area educators and police say they’re continuing to look for ways to improve local school safety.

It’s part of an ever-evolving conversation, officials said, that dictates area schools districts maintain updated safety procedures in the event of a worst case scenario. It’s not as simple as more police in schools or annual intruder drills either, said Shawn LaPlante, eighth grade Huntley Middle School teacher and co-president of the DeKalb Classroom Teachers Association.

Often, those drills can be traumatizing and add another layer of uncertainty to an already unsettled classroom, he said.

“If you understood the challenges of trying to keep 35 eighth graders quiet and you see this is the one time they’re quiet, no questions asked, kids definitely know the concept of what we’re trying to achieve in this case unfortunately,” LaPlante, who teachers algebra and social studies, said. “I was at the elementary level and you see the kids cry.”

In Mary Lynn Buckner’s Littlejohn Elementary School classroom, where she teaches special education to kindergarten through fifth grade, the pressure of thinking of ways to protect her kids feel even more real these days.

“I keep a baseball bat in my room next to my door,” Buckner, co-president of the DCTA, said. “We were told to keep a brick. It’s scary.”

The grave nature of the what-ifs facing educators and those tasked with keeping children safe these days is part of a larger conversation about school safety. What procedures exist already in schools, and what else is needed?

“We do think that there are benefits of having the SROs having a presence in schools,” Buckner said. “We feel, though, that the increased police presence should be viewed as a Band-Aid. We believe the longer-term solution involves addressing the trauma that our students face from a very young age that manifests itself as a verbal or physical aggression toward staff.”

The DCTA union has advocated for smaller classroom sizes so teachers can more effectively address students’ needs, the pair said. K-5 averages about 28 students, while LaPlante’s middle school age to high school classes can reach 35 students per one teacher.

“The union definitely has a strong opinion that we need to lower that class size,” LaPlante said. “It is truly a way to help address the social emotional needs.”

Over the past several months, DeKalb School District 428 and the city of DeKalb have debated whether to add additional school resource officers to the county’s largest district. The school board in May approved two more SROs, one more for the high school and one to share among the middle schools. A plan to vote on the updated SRO contract, however, was tabled by the DeKalb City Council on Monday.

Recently, the school board approved additional school counselors and social workers. The union’s safety and security committee also meets regularly, and district staff have undergone ALICE training.

“It should certainly be applauded for the school board and the district making those efforts.” LaPlante said. “School safety is at the forefront of many union discussions including district led committees as well.”

Police training

DeKalb Police Chief David Byrd said while he believes SROs are a needed resource in schools, training police officers for rapid response in the event of a mass casualty incident is in itself a larger priority.

“If we have an active threat that makes entry to any one of our schools, then the SRO role changes because now they are back in that law enforcement role,” Byrd said.

DeKalb police officers and first responders, including DeKalb paramedics, take part in annual rapid deployment training which teaches them to immediately enter a building if an active shooter is suspected or confirmed, Byrd said.

DeKalb County isn’t untouched by mass violence. On Feb. 14, 2008, a former Northern Illinois University student entered Cole Hall on NIU campus in DeKalb and fatally shot five students, injuring 17 others, before shooting himself. First responders encompassed law enforcement from agencies all over the county.

“When it comes to rapid deployment, our officers can’t stand by when there’s an active shooter,” Byrd said. “[They’re taught] the first officer on the scene will have to make a solo entry if needed and stop that threat. That’s how we train is with the solo entry. We also train as a team entry as well.”

The multiple-agency training takes place in conjunction with police from Sycamore and NIU, as well as deputies from the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office.

Almost 20 officers stood in a hallway outside of the classrooms during this the attack on an Uvalde elementary school for more than 45 minutes before agents used a master key to open a door and confront a gunman, authorities said recently.

Byrd, who said he’s walked through all of DeKalb’s schools himself, said he believes District 428′s building are safe.

Visitors to DeKalb buildings need to press a button to be buzzed into a secured room in the front office. They’re given an identification badge and will be asked to provide a reason for the visit, Carson said. It’s called a rapid visitor management system, designed to vet people coming into school buildings. Then they’re buzzed again to gain entry to the building hallways.

“When I think of the proactive protocols in place here in DeKalb, I think we’re ahead of the game because you can’t gain entry into a school room a classroom the way that this gentleman did in Texas,” Byrd said. “There are intruder drills that are done at the school once or twice a year so I think practice makes perfect. I think those type of drills have to be conducted annually.”

It’s also important to teach children and educators to remain vigilant, Byrd said.

“The younger kids might not always understand what suspicious means,” Byrd said. “They might not know well that doesn’t look right, but as you get older, I think they have a better understanding what a threat would look like. Say ‘Hey if you see someone without a pass, tell a teacher.’”

Echoing sentiments shared by dozens of regional sheriff’s officials in the wake of the shooting, Byrd said he believes that addressing mental health crises is a necessity.

DeKalb County school officials react

In Sycamore Community School District 427, two school resource officers patrol Sycamore Middle School and Sycamore High School as needed, said Superintendent Steve Wilder. He said the district has a positive relationship with the Sycamore Police Department, which provides the specially trained officers.

He said the district annually reviews its safety plans, and school shooter drills are conducted in conjunction with the SROs.

Keeping kids and educators safe in schools must be a community effort, Wilder said.

“I think it’s important for the community to know that we take safety planning seriously and that we not only review our plans regularly, but we practice safety drills regularly,” Wilder said. “I hope that creates a sense of trust and safety, but part of that plan is also keeping lines of communication open. We encourage anyone – student, staff or community member – to contact us if there is a concern.”

Even if those concerns end up unfounded - as has been the case several times in DeKalb County schools throughout the past school year - it’s better to investigate and be thorough, Wilder said.

“We encourage parents to talk to their children about communicating with us, trusting our staff and our plan and being prepared to follow directions in the event of any emergency,” Wilder said.

As part of its ongoing evolution of its school safety plan, DeKalb District 428 recently underwent a safety audit, said Tammy Carson, director of facility operation services. The findings of that audit have not yet been made publicly available, however, a request for a district safety manager already has gone in front of the school board and is expected to be voted on later this month.

At smaller districts such as Genoa-Kingston School District 424, the single school resource officer also happens to be the Genoa police chief, said Superintendent Brent O’Daniell. Kingston police officers also are on standby if the need arises in the district’s four school buildings that include two elementary schools, a middle and high school, he said.

Recently, Genoa-Kingston district administrators held a safety and security meeting with area first responders, part of an annual May gathering. The meeting occurred before the Uvalde shooting.

“We have an online safety and security program and we look at that, and we go through the safety and security protocols for each building,” O’Daniell said. “The principals attend and speak to how our emergency drills have gone. It’s like a debrief from bus evacuations, fire evacuations, lockdown.”