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Private Working Group Studies Public Safety

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Gov. Bruce Rauner has a track record of handing the toughest topics to small bipartisan panels of legislators. These “working groups” have been tasked with solving budget and pension problems, plus criminal justice reform. And weeks after the Florida mass shooting, Rauner formed a working group on public safety. Like the others, that group meets in private.

Speaking after today's meeting, State Rep. Barbara Wheeler (R-Crystal Lake) said it's probably meant to prevent politicians from grandstanding.

"I'm going to guess that — because there's nothing secret, and that's something to be proud of — I think it might be just to focus on real policy that's going to be helpful to the public and not necessarily to anyone's campaign,” she said.

This group is set to tackle tough issues like gun trafficking, school safety, and mental health. At the invitation of a lawmaker, I attended the first two meetings. There were no signs indicating the meeting was closed, and numerous people in the room recognized me. I sat in the back and took notes; I did not record the proceedings. I never felt like I was trespassing on a secret meeting; instead, I listened to experts in law enforcement and mental health facilitate substantive, in-depth discussions.

Rep. Michelle Mussman (D-Schaumburg), who is a member of the group, found them thought-provoking.

"I've been really impressed with it, with the people they've been able to bring in," she said.

She didn't object to my presence at the meetings, but Rodger Heaton, the governor's chief of staff, told me media cannot attend and asked me to leave. Mussman said that might be due to the sensitive topics.

"You know, mental health, gun rights, you know, where is the intersection where government is allowed to intercede, you know, it's not easy," she said today.

Mussman and I had chatted briefly right after the first meeting, which focused on school safety. The agenda at that April 5th meeting centered on a set of recommendations from the Illinois Terrorism Task Force School Safety Working Group (not to be confused with this legislative working group), comprised of 21 mostly male, mostly law enforcement officials. Their recommendations included “hardening” campuses and flagging potentially-problematic students via behavior threat assessments. The last item listed on their report was “trauma management training,” to teach school personnel how to stop bleeding and handle physical injuries that might result from a school shooting.

Nothing in that report addressed the kind of “trauma” commonly discussed among educators these days — the invisible, psychological damage many students bring with them to school as a result of “adverse childhood experiences,” like domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, homelessness, or missing a loved one due to divorce or incarceration. Scientific studies have shown that an accumulation of such ACEs can affect a child’s brain.

But just because those studies weren’t included in the task force report didn’t mean those concepts were discounted by the working group. David Risley, the former federal prosecutor who worked with Heaton for decades and led the working group’s discussion, repeatedly pointed at Mussman and said, “You should be on the task force,” indicating that he welcomed her perspective.

At the second meeting, lawmakers heard presentations from Brent Teasdale, Department Chair of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University, and Mark Heyrman, a law professor from the University of Chicago. Discussion centered on how mental illness factors into violence. The two experts told the lawmakers that there’s less correlation than most people think. Anorexia, for example, is a mental illness, but has virtually zero correlation to gun violence. Yet there are other “red flags” that are much more predictive, such as domestic violence or being kicked out of college.

Rauner's spokesperson, Rachel Bold, said the group needs to meet in private to foster the candid exchange of ideas.

This group is supposed to include lawmakers from both chambers and both parties, but Senate Democrats have declined to participate.?

Here’s a list of lawmakers in the working group:

Rep. Tom Bennett (R-Pontiac)

Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Taylorville)

Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago)

Rep. Jonathan Carroll (D-Northbrook)

Rep. Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park)

Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer (R-Jacksonville)

Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago)

Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-St. Charles)

Rep. Martin Moylan (D-Des Plaines)

Rep. Michelle Mussman (D-Schaumburg)

Sen. Chris Nybo (R-Elmhurst)

Sen. Dale Righter (R-Mattoon)

Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago)

Sen. Chuck Weaver (R-Peoria)

Rep. Barb Wheeler (R-Crystal Lake)

Rep. Kathleen Willis? (D-Addison)