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The Different Ways Local Districts Are Addressing School Safety

Photo by Peter Medlin
Sandwich High School is implementing new safety measures this year both inside and outside the building.

In light of the conversations around safety, schools have recently changed many protocols and programs. They've replaced and upgraded equipment and hired armed resource officers.

But safety is not only about the physical vulnerability of the building. It's increasingly about mental health and helping students forge positive relationships with adults in their schools and communities.

A few years ago, the Somonauk School District had a safety drill. There were no students -- just teachers and administrators gathered in the middle school with some DeKalb County police officers. They stood in the cafeteria and had the police chief fire his gun.

"I wanted the teachers to be able to hear that," said Jay Streicher, Superintendent of the Somonauk School District. "What does it sound like, so you know it's not the first time you've heard it. You always hear people say it sounded like fireworks going off. So I thought what better way than to practice having one going off and you can see what it sounds like down your hallway."

Aside from drills, district officials recently implemented a more robust guest check-in system and increased their amount of safety cameras. But they're also touting a safety audit, which is, and will continue to be, specific suggestions of what would work best for a school of their size.

One town over, the Sandwich School District recently hired another safety consultant, leading to a whole new plan for this school year. With the help of their consultant, they've been getting feedback on safety drills and are completing FEMA's National Incident Management System Training. 

"It's a lot of what we were doing, but the difference is that there are some specifics that have changed to meet those requirements, so we make sure we're using best practices; because that's what it's about," said Tom Sodaro, principal of Sandwich High School.

"What was best practiced 20 years ago is not the best practice anymore. There are things we've learned from different fires and active shooters that we implement, and that's what we're doing."

Meanwhile, in the larger DeKalb district, the goal has been to continue with existing plans. They've been an ALICE district -- that's Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate -- for five years. That means staff members are trained in active shooter responses.

Superintendent Jamie Craven said they've continued to send staff to conferences to learn more about best practices, and he said he does not personally believe arming teachers and administrators is the answer.

"Nowhere in our educational background do we learn the tactical ways to react in a school crisis," said Craven. "So that's why we go to the experts, and we have a great relationship with (Chief of Police) Gene Lowery and the local police staff."

DeKalb schools also have two resource officers on hand, a route many school districts have chosen.

In fact, back in Sandwich, they hired a new resource officer this year. Sodaro said it's been in the works for a while, and -- as in Somonauk -- has to do with resources. He refers to them as SROs.

"SROs do cost quite a bit of money," he said. "It's a full-time employee. What we were able to do was work with the police department as a shared basis, and split the cost with them."

The officer goes between buildings and goes to school events, keeping his eyes open, but also forging connections with students beyond keeping the building secure.

The officer is also helping out by organizing safety workshops focused on cyberbullying and social media.

"The majority of our discipline issues are social media-related," said Sodaro. "I'm not going to say all of them, but if I had to guess it's 75 percent of them come from social media."

On that side of safety, DeKalb Superintendent Jamie Craven said they also made mental health a priority.

"One of the things that the school board did do in this past spring was allow the district to expand our social work and school psychologist staff," he said.

In Somonauk, the district hired a K-8 guidance counselor to help build bonds in relationships with younger students. This coincides with a new K-8 social-emotional program teaching kids how to process their emotions.

"Connection with students is better than any lock on any door or any program you could implement," said Superintendent Streicher. "I think making every kid feel like they're connected to the school, connected to adults, is the best prevention that is out there."

Large or small, these district officials believe preparedness will go a long way to serve students and staff.