WOODSTOCK – When Elizabeth Salada’s 6-year-old daughter returned home from school after 17 people were shot and killed at a Florida school, she asked her mother: “What if this happens to us?”
It’s a fear that parents, teachers, school administrators and school resource officers all have and try to prepare for, with safety procedures constantly evolving. Tensions are high in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – and local schools are reviewing what they can do to keep students safe.
“She said the shooter did it on purpose, and it surprised me that my 6-year-old knew so much of what had happened,” said Salada, of Pingree Grove. “It’s scary as a parent, but also good in a way that she is so aware.”
Police in McHenry County have taken recent threats seriously – whether it’s a Marlowe Middle School student posting a threatening video on social media, a racially charged threat made on Xbox Live, two 9 mm bullets found in the hallway of Huntley High School or a Woodstock North High School student sending a threatening message and photo of a gun on social media.
Many schools point to school resource officers as the “on-the-ground” officer who can investigate scenarios before they become a crisis. In the case of the Parkland shooting, the armed school resource officer stayed outside as the shooting unfolded.
Woodstock’s school resource officer, Josh Rapacz, said the protocol for every officer, not just the school officer, would be to respond immediately, save as many lives as possible and eliminate the threat.
Cary Deputy Chief of Support Services Jim Fillmore said that in the days of the Columbine school shooting, the protocol was to form a perimeter and wait for SWAT personnel before making entry.
“Now, we’ve learned over the years that you can’t really sit back and wait, you have to engage at a much faster pace,” Fillmore said.
In reaction to President Donald Trump’s proposal to arm highly trained teachers with guns, Woodstock School District 200 director of communications Kevin Lyons said the district is open to many security solutions – but arming teachers isn’t one of them.
“We have a lot of great teachers and a lot of great police officers, but they are entirely different jobs, and they should be,” Lyons said.
Schools hold active shooter drills annually in conjunction with police departments. Lyons said each of the district’s 12 buildings has its own handbook and staff are assigned to specific roles. The district’s crisis plan was formed in 2009 and is updated regularly.
Nationally, students are walking out of school in protest and demanding stricter gun control to prevent mass shootings, with a National School Walkout planned for March 14.
During a preplanned active shooter drill at Prairie Ridge High School, students were asked how they felt within the building and how things could be made safer. Their answers were compiled for the administration and are being evaluated, said Scott Shepard, High School District 155 assistant superintendent of educational services.
District 200 Superintendent Mike Moan is planning to visit both high schools next week to hear directly from students about their safety concerns and questions. Meetings are also being planned on how to communicate safety matters at the lower elementary and middle school levels, Lyons said.
When it comes to younger students, practice is key so they’re prepared, said Lea Damisch, superintendent of Marengo Union School District 165.
“We don’t want to conjure up fear in small children,” Damisch said. “A lot of those conversations lower than middle school happen at home with parents at the kitchen table. That is a safe place for children, and most kids believe parents are their best protectors.”
Overall, Damisch said the most important part is the social and emotional curriculum taught so that kids who need extra support can get help and teachers can recognize warning signs early on.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.