Will County school officials warn apathy, security needs might not prevent next school tragedy

School officials and teachers reckon with the persistent threat of gun violence after an already ‘exhausting’ year.

Joliet Township High School 204,  Joliet West High School, education

School officials in Will County had a familiar set of reactions on the day after a gunman opened fire killing 19 students and two adults in Uvalde, Texas.

All across the country, school officials and parents fretted there were no clear answers to the school horrors. So they worried and held vigils.

In Plainfield School District 202, all flags were flown at half staff until Saturday out of respect for the victims.

The Joliet Police Department announced a “marked increased police presence at all schools” within its jurisdiction for the remainder of the school year.

In Lockport Township High School District 205, Superintendent Robert McBride said his board recently approved an agreement with Lockport police to put a resource officer in both district buildings. The district previously had individuals with police training in its schools, but not actual officers.

Still, McBride said despite significant “safety architecture” in schools, he acknowledged that a resource officer alone might not be able to fend off a would-be shooter.

“We can’t do it alone,” McBride said. “We need outside support and change to keep our staff and students safe.”

Lockport Township High School, education, covid-19, coronavirus

Dawn Bullock, the president of the Plainfield Association of Teachers, said she favored doing more to combat school shootings and pointed to statements from national teacher’s unions about the issue. The APT represents 1,900 certified staff members in District 202.

“Obviously we want our kids to be as safe as possible,” she said. “Any extra security and safety we can put in place, we want.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest union, pointed to the young ages of the alleged perpetrators of recent mass shootings.

“The web of mental health services that is meant to catch these kids, cradle them and help heal them has giant tears in it,” the IEA said. “The signs they give get ignored instead of treated. We have to do better, especially in the shadow of a pandemic that caused more-than-normal stress and isolation.”

Bullock also referenced such struggles during this school year, especially after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting daily life in the classroom.

Districts in Will County have tried to address the various concerns from potential learning loss because of classes going remote, to increases in violence among students.

On gun violence specifically, the IEA called on lawmakers to “come together” and “start doing something,” adding the issue was not partisan.

Despite similar pleas from members of Congress and President Joe Biden, no significant action at the national level is expected following Tuesday’s mass shooting.

Tim Baldermann, the mayor of New Lenox and superintendent of Union School District 81 in Joliet, said while there are many reasons for such violence, addressing mental and emotional health disorders should be a key priority.

Baldermann, a former police chief, said that even with stricter gun laws, it would be difficult to completely prevent such shootings.

“Criminals will get their hands on weapons,” he said. “That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be commonsense gun legislation.”

But when asked about the prospect of any movement at the state or federal level on gun legislation, Baldermann expressed little hope because for legislators “it’s all about politics,” and “not about really solving the problem.”

Officials also expressed a concern such persistent violence was becoming so common, it might engender a sense of apathy among some.

“Nothing shocks us as a society anymore,” Baldermann said. “People will talk about it for a day or two and then go on about their daily lives.”

McBride said he worried about that sense of apathy making it more difficult for school leaders to find creative ways to prevent such violence.

“The ultimate extension of that [apathy] in my mind is that we’re willing to accept certain losses,” McBride said. “I just don’t think most parents I know would want to accept that.”

He said, “the apathy toward that is very dangerous.”