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Securing schools

School resource officer Chris Weaver watches over students during passing period Thursday January 31 2013 West AurorHigh School. | Jeff

School resource officer Chris Weaver watches over students during a passing period on Thursday, January 31, 2013, at West Aurora High School. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Entering Kaneland High School as a parent or visitor now means submitting to a background check-in-miniature.

Just to get in the door requires a buzzer system. And as of three weeks ago, visitors are being required to hand over a drivers license or other identification that can be scanned.

“When you check in with a license, it will check the sex offender database and to see if there’s any other potential reason that you shouldn’t be in the building,” said Kaneland Superintendent Jeff Schuler.

“We’re trying in the high school first, want to see how it works out first, with an eye to then expanding it to other buildings.”

While the new check-in system came on line just three weeks ago — about three weeks after the massacre that killed 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn. — Schuler said that, like most school districts in the Fox Valley and around the country, Kaneland constantly re-evaluates and updates its security systems and protocols.

“We’ve been pretty tight on security already,” Schuler said.

More than a month has passed since the Connecticut shooting, which took the lives of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That has given school boards, principals, even parents, time to weigh in on school security and make changes to keep students safe.

Other school districts, Yorkville, for instance, are considering the same check-in system added to Kaneland High School. Still others are looking at new cameras and new security plans.

And though some schools around the country are jumping the gun — literally, by training teachers to shoot or arming janitors, as has been proposed in one Ohio school district — schools around the Fox Valley are making far more subtle changes.

Updating plans

In Oswego schools, front doors will be equipped with cameras, so that front-desk secretaries can identify visitors before they enter the buildings. Superintendent Matthew Wendt said a new security system for schools had been on the district’s wish list, but following Sandy Hook, administrators decided to delay routine purchases like tile and carpet in order to purchase the cameras first.

Somonauk schools already had cameras in place, but the incident has prompted the district to consider upgrades.

“We are also looking at buzzer systems in each main office that would signal an alarm to the security company and then send notification to the local authorities that there is a problem,” said Superintendent Dawn Green.

The district also ran a “code red” drill with staff and students, and will be updating its security plans over the next few weeks based on the results of those drills.

Yorkville schools routinely run lockdown drills with their students, said Superintendent Scott Wakeley, but the district also works closely with the Yorkville Police Department, giving them access to the schools when closed.

“They do those scenarios in our buildings,” Wakeley said. “We don’t do active shooter scenarios with the students in the building, but the police are in the building training for these things actually in the school. What better place to prepare, better than learning about it sitting in a meeting room or classroom somewhere.”

In most school districts, improving security has mostly meant collaboration.

“Since Sandy Hook, we have had numerous meetings with principals and administrators to review safety procedures in all our buildings,” said Janet Buglio, spokesman for the Indian Prairie School District, in an email.“Our superintendent has also met with police chiefs and city leaders in both Naperville and Aurora to discuss collaborative efforts with intergovernmental groups should a similar tragedy happen here.”

The Naperville School District has also remained tight-lipped about its security measures.

“We do have cameras located on school property and in buildings that help us monitor activity. Revealing the extent and locations of those devices would only serve to reduce their effectiveness,” said spokesman Susan Rice.

“We would not post security information on websites or publish anything beyond the safety procedures students need to know in an emergency as it would compromise security. As a district, we have numerous protocols to cover all number of emergency and safety scenarios. These are reviewed regularly, and practiced with students and staff as required by law.”

But school officials said that directly following the events at Sandy Hook in December, they faced concerned parents and community members who wanted to see more drastic measures.

“Some suggestions were made we should lock down the doors 24/7, check IDs for anyone going to a basketball game or choir concert,” said Oswego School Board member Brent Lightfoot during a board meeting addressing updates to security technology and procedure. “I think that’s utterly ridiculous. That’s not the kind of society we live in. Let’s keep our heads in order.”

Since the start of this school year, Miriam Wade-Hicks has worked at West Aurora to secure schools and also quell anxiety as its security director. She develops security plans and works with the district’s crisis team to train for possible emergencies.

But Wade-Hicks is also trained in mental health first aid, a program designed to help those who work with the public to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness.

“We in no way diagnose, but it’s a sensitizing class to help take the stigma away from mental illness,” Wade-Hicks said.

The goal of the training is to educate teachers and other professionals to be able to identify when someone may be struggling with a mental health issue and to de-escalate situations when a person is in crisis.

Wade-Hicks said that, while it may sound “cheesy,” keeping students safe requires a holistic approach, from keeping doors locked during the day and mounting cameras on the walls to working directly with students — from running emergency drills to identifying those in need of help, and even reminding them of their responsibilities to keep schools safe.

“What we want to do is create a climate where people will feel comfortable,” Wade-Hicks said. “We know that in 81 percent of school shooter cases other people were aware that some violence could happen. We need a climate where people will tell, will share that information with a parent or responsible adult.”

What about guns?

As for proposals floating around from the National Rifle Association and other gun advocacy groups that more school staff members be armed, it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon in Fox Valley schools.

“I don’t anticipate that,” said Kaneland’s Schuler. “We do employ a full-time student resource officer, and that individual is armed, but no, we have not had any level of discussion about arming anybody.”

President Obama’s plan for reducing gun violence, released last month, called for more funds to hire another 1,000 school resource officers across the country. Like nearly every high school in the Fox Valley, Kaneland High School uses their student resource officer to patrol the halls, talk with students and work to solve and prevent crime in the school.

“We have SROs (student resource officers) in the middle schools and (East Aurora) high school, and sometimes we share them with the parochial schools. And we have had them for a number of years. They become a part of the fabric of the school,” said East Aurora schools spokesman Clayton Muhammad.

Muhammad said students at East High have built relationships with Aurora Police Officer Victor Devaldivielso — the students call him “Officer Devo”— the school’s SRO.

“It’s Officer Devo, who works inside the school, and those relationships with students are critical. He’s always in the loop with what goes on,” said Muhammad.

But as for putting firearms in the hands of anyone else in Fox Valley schools, Muhammad offered a succinct answer summing up the answers of just about every administrator in the area.

“No,” he said.

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