Illinois requires districts to draft school safety plans and stage active shooter drills, but the state leaves many of the particulars of school security – like whether to have surveillance cameras – up to individual campuses.
The same goes for school violence prevention. Districts are required to create a procedure for identifying threatening behavior in schools, but local school officials have little guidance from the state as to what prevention measures should look like.
Like many things in Illinois education, how to keep the state’s nearly 2 million school children safe is often a matter of local control. The May 24 murder of 19 school children and two teachers by an active shooter in Uvalde, Texas, renewed scrutiny of what states require, or don’t, when it comes to keeping children safe.
The shooting in Texas also highlighted a political division in how state officials respond to such high-profile tragic events. An Associated Press survey of governors following last week’s attack found that most Democrats amplified their calls for tighter restrictions on gun ownership, while most of the Republicans surveyed called for tighter security measures in schools.
Illinois lies somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of school safety requirements. It is one of 43 states that require schools to have safety plans, according to the Education Commission of the States. But unlike a majority of those states, Illinois does not require law enforcement agencies to be involved in the plans’ creation. It also does not require law enforcement officials to participate in regular school safety audits as some states do.
School districts in Illinois “have an incredible amount of autonomy” around school security, said Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. The idea behind that, he explained, is that district officials know the particulars on the ground. “We can’t know what their buildings are like. We can’t know what requirements local first responders have.”
As an example, Klaisner said, some districts have access to local emergency vehicles equipped with computers that are loaded with the floor plans of school buildings.
But Illinois also has many downstate districts spanning large areas that may be under-resourced. “There are rural districts where the fire department is entirely volunteer, and that’s a wholly different conversation,” he said.
As questions swirl around the emergency response to the school shooting in Uvalde, parents in Illinois may be wondering what their local schools are required to do to keep children safe. Here’s what Illinois does and doesn’t require.
Emergency response plans
According to Illinois law, each public school building must have an emergency response and crisis plan, and it must be reviewed annually by a local school board (private schools must submit annual reviews of their plans to the state fire marshal). Local law enforcement officials and first responders are invited to participate in these reviews, but their attendance is not required.
“Anytime some horrific thing happens, it renews focus on these plans,” said Thomas Bertrand, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards. “Everyone pulls the plans back out, does additional training, just so you know you’re doing everything you can to keep students safe.”
Illinois State Board of Education policy dictates the plans include an emergency chain of command, emergency contact lists and methods for accounting of student whereabouts. Local school officials determine the specific steps to be taken after detection of an armed intruder. Bertrand’s organization provides guidance on developing these steps, from evacuation protocols to post-incident recovery.
“Not only do you need to have the plan, you need to practice the plan and get local responders involved in providing input,” he said.
Plans, however, are not posted publicly.
Active shooter drills
The same state law requiring annual reviews of school emergency plans requires every school, public and private, to conduct an active shooter drill within the first 90 days of each school year. The drill must be observed by local law enforcement and is intended to identify any shortcomings in the plan.
“You have to practice for the unthinkable,” Bertrand said.
The drills must be announced in advance to all school staff, students, and parents, be age and developmentally appropriate and involve school-based mental health professionals.
Notably, the drills cannot include “simulations that mimic an actual school shooting incident or active shooter event.”
In January 2019, teachers at a northern Indiana school were shot with plastic pellets during an active shooter drill. The incident sparked widespread criticism and scrutiny of active shooter drills, and some of the teachers who sustained injuries sued the local law enforcement members involved.
Many parents and education experts have questioned the psychological cost of active shooter drills, even ones that do not simulate gunshots.
“Having an active shooter drill once a month, it has to be so good to balance out scaring our kids,” said Dr. Amy Klinger of the Educators’ School Safety Network, which amplifies educators’ voices in conversations about school safety and security. “If a school doesn’t know how to identify individuals of concern, all the active shooter drills in the world are not going to make it safe.”
Behavioral threat assessment
In 2019, a year after a school shooting in Parkland, Fl., the Illinois legislature updated the state’s school safety drill rules. It began requiring each school district to develop a threat assessment procedure and team.
The legislation requires each threat assessment team to include a school administrator, a teacher, a school counselor, a school psychologist, a school social worker and at least one law enforcement official.
Beyond that, the legislation does not provide much detail.
“There’s not much to it,” Vince Walsh-Rock, director of the Illinois School Counselors Association. “But early identification of threats can make an enormous difference, especially when you’re not using it to punish, but instead using it to help students.”
Walsh-Rock’s organization held a threat assessment training for its members in January and he said many schools are still looking for guidance in implementing the policy.
“They need a framework for processing threats, and they need to provide a really good education around what a threat is, what threatening behavior looks like,” he said. “The most important thing is making sure that the right supports are around students. They need connections in their school building.”
The Parkland shooting also prompted Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to create, in 2019, a 24-hour helpline that students can use to report concerns about school safety. Information obtained through the hotline is vetted and then, depending on the contents, shared with local school officials, mental health staff and local law enforcement.
Safety equipment and school safety officers
A common safety question among parents is whether schools are required to have surveillance cameras or metal detectors.
The answer is no. Illinois does not require schools to have surveillance cameras or metal detectors, nor does it require campuses to employ school resource officers (SROs) or security guards. Schools are also not required to lock doors.
“These are all left up to school districts,” Klaisner said. “Some of this is an equity issue. Districts that are well-funded can have more safety measures, more cameras, more scanners, more SROs, while districts that aren’t as well funded face more challenges in keeping kids safe.”
Klaisner said all of the schools he knows require doors to be locked during the day.
“But it doesn’t matter what we regulate, human error is really hard to control,” he said. “If a teacher props open the door because they’re headed out to recess, that obliterates the safety plan you had.”
Bertrand said there have been a lot of conversations around requiring school safety officers in Illinois schools and that people feel strongly on both sides of the issue. In Chicago, the presence of police officers in schools was closely scrutinized during a wave of youth activism spurred by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Ultimately, several high schools voted to reduce the size of their police force.
Some educators and researchers condemn the deployment of police officers in schools, saying it leads to the criminalization of student behavior, especially for students of color.
“Certainly anytime something horrific happens, people ask, what else can we do to make our students and staff as safe as possible,” Bertrand said. “And there then tends to be more discussion around a variety of interventions,” including safety officers.
As to who can carry guns in Illinois schools, there is a law about that: Only school resource officers and other law enforcement officials are allowed.
Lisa Philip is an independent journalist based in Oak Park, IL.