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How school districts respond to gun violence on school grounds

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Auburn High School in Rockford where two students were shot in the parking lot in January 2021

Around lunchtime on January 4 of this year, two Rockford students were shot in the parking lot of their high school. The schools immediately locked down. Police searched the area for the suspects, while parents frantically texted their kids. Dozens of parents waited outside Auburn High School for hours for the final bell to ring and rejoin their children.

Both students survived. It was a terrifying day for the Rockford community. But, in an age of mass shootings, for many, it’s a familiar story.

This year, there have been nearly 100 gunfire incidents on school property in America. Including Auburn, there have been at least three incidents of gun violence on school grounds just in the WNIJ listening area of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, from Beloit to Plainfield.

Those incidents plus the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas have forced schools across the country to reflect on what school safety means to them.

In Rockford, after the shooting, the school district applied additional social workers to Auburn and a trauma response team over the following days. Auburn principal Jenny Keffer also announced the school was enforcing a dress code policy banning hoodies.

Some community members criticized the move as targeting students of color. They pointed out that, because of COVID-19, students were already wearing facemasks which could obscure their identity. They also said, given the seriousness of the situation, the action was insufficient. Days later, school leaders backpedaled
from the decision.

The school district and city government teamed up on mental health and trauma initiatives like “Handle With Care.” It’s a program meant to make sure schools are aware of trauma students face outside of the classroom. Several Rockford schools also invited community business leaders, politicians, parents, and pastors to come to the building to talk with students right after dismissal when discipline issues often happen.

Tom McNamara is the mayor of Rockford.

“Where we're at right now as a community," he said, "is pretty unacceptable when it comes to violence and the lack of hope."

He’s been spending time at Auburn through the community partnership. He says 75% of youth Rockford police arrest for violent offenses grew up in households where violence occurred.

Also in January, in Beloit, Wisconsin, a 19-year-old was shot and killed outside of Beloit Memorial High School after a basketball game.

The fatal shooting happened just as the district was reviewing its school resource officer program. After a public listening session, which the district said elicited mainly positive reviews of the program, the school board recommended hiring an additional officer.

Later in the spring, a high school student was shot in the leg just outside of Meadow View Elementary School in Plainfield. Less than a week later, staff at that same elementary school discovered bullet holes in a wall inside the school. Police say that was from a separate incident.

Tom Hernandez is the director of community relations at the Plainfield School District. He says they asked for an extra police presence for the next few days and increased mental health support.

He also says they’re proud of their collaboration with local police on active shooter drills.

“Eventually, we got to the point where [police] just simply showed up, whenever they felt like it. And that's real," he said. "And then in the most recent years, they started focusing on external: buses, kids outside, gym class or recess."

Hernandez says the district conducts ALICE training as well that asks kids to barricade themselves and throw classroom objects at a shooter. He compared it to a tornado drill.

“I mean, it is traumatic in its own way," said Hernandez. "But I suppose the proof in the pudding would be that hopefully if, God forbid, we have a destructive natural disaster or whatever, kiddos know what to do. It becomes instinctive."

The Fourth of July mass shooting in Highland Park wasn’t on school grounds, but the town’s school districts helped take the lead in offering support.

Karen Warner is the director of communications at Highland Township School District 113. She says in the days and weeks after it took place, they provided crisis counseling and other support services for students and everyone else in the community.

At this point, she says, they’re handing off some of that to organizations like the Red Cross and refocusing on counseling services for students and staff.

“What students will need and what staff will need, we know there's not going to be a uniform approach," she said. "So, there'll be a lot of different things we're looking at [as] a way to support students and staff in this upcoming school year."

Because, for school districts, it seems like the need for those services is only growing.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.