Most parents want to believe that they'll be informed of every incident involving weapons or violence in their child's school. But aside from a report in the local newspaper -- or the occasional note sent home by a principal or superintendent - there is not a comprehensive source to check to find out what is going on.
That shouldn't be the case. For years, the Illinois State Board of Education has maintained a little-known database called the School Incident Reporting System, or SIRS, where - by law - parents are supposed to be able find out about every incident of assaults, weapons and drugs in every school in Illinois.
But following a two-month investigation, NBC 5 Investigates has found that fewer than one-third of the Chicago area's 2,124 elementary, middle, and high schools report any incidents to this system. That means there is no clear way for the public to find out what is happening inside nearly 1,500 schools in Chicago and across the suburbs.
What's more, there are no penalties for any school that chooses not to report to SIRS.
It's not like the incidents are few and far-between. NBC 5 Investigates obtained a database of all incidents reported to SIRS for the past two-and-a-half years, covering Chicago plus every suburban town in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties.
In all, we found a total of 646 city and suburban schools that do choose to disclose their incidents directly to SIRS. And for just those 600-plus schools, we found thousands of reports of drugs; assaults on teachers, students, and other school personnel; and weapons at schools throughout the city and suburbs.
Weapons alone accounted for a total of 1,428 incidents examined by NBC 5 - with 314 of those weapons reports were from suburban schools.
Half of all the weapon incidents involved knives or other cutting instruments such as switchblades and razors. Other incidents involved hammers, ligatures, and broken glass. And NBC5 Investigates discovered a total of 92 incidents involving firearms or explosives - including 55 incidents in Chicago schools, and the other 37 in schools throughout the suburbs.
Here are some examples of weapons incidents reported to the School Incident Reporting System, in and around Chicago, in the past two-and-a-half years:
- October, 2011: A student was suspended after bringing a firearm on school grounds at Glenbard West High School in Glen Ellyn.
- February, 2012: A student was arrested after being found with a handgun inside K.D. Waldo Middle School in Aurora.
- November, 2012: At Viking Middle School in Gurnee, a student was arrested after using a knife on a bus.
- December, 2012: A student was found with an incendiary device inside Woodstock High School.
- January, 2013: A student received detention after being found with explosives inside Wesmere Elementary School in Plainfield.
- April, 2013: A student brought a firearm inside Gary Elementary School in West Chicago.
- September, 2013: Police arrested a student after he or she was found with a handgun inside Evanston Township High School.
- November, 2013: A student was suspended after being found with explosives inside Kanoon Elementary Magnet School in Chicago.
But the incidents that are not included in the state database - incidents at the nearly-seventy-percent of Chicago-area schools that don't use SIRS -- may be a bigger cause for concern.
That was true for Allison Reid-Neimiec, a mother of three small children in northwest-suburban Belvidere, Illinois.
Two years ago she began researching her neighborhood schools as she prepared to send her oldest daughter to kindergarten. She discovered a news item about a child who brought a gun into a nearby elementary school, and she wanted to get more information. She sought information through the School Incident Reporting System - but found nothing from Belvidere.
"My reaction was -- What? Did I find it wrong? Have I missed it somewhere?" Reid-Neimiec said. "And then it was kind of outrage: This is a law and we're not following the law?"
In fact the law itself may be part of the problem: Illinois law clearly states that schools must report all incidents of weapons, assaults and drugs to both local police and Illinois State Police. The law also mandates that this information should be available to the public. The School Incident Reporting System is supposed to help serve both of those purposes - but only if a school chooses to use it.
And, as Reid-Neimiec discovered, the Belvidere School District hasn't reported to SIRS for years. (NBC5 Investigates left several messages seeking a response from the Belvidere School District, but the superintendent did not return any calls.)
"Everybody ought to know exactly what is going on in their school, so if there is a problem - or if there is a pattern - it can be solved," said Susan Garrett. Garrett is a former state senator - and now chairman of the board of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. In 2012 she introduced legislation to strengthen and clarify the laws that require schools to report these incidents. The bill did not pass - so the law continues to be unclear for schools.
"Every parent wants to know that their schools are as safe as possible," Garrett said, "and really what this bill did, was to find a way to ensure that every step was being taken to make sure that if there are issues, we're going to find out about them and we're going to share those issues with people who need to know."
"It's the parents that can lean on those legislators to create consequences when the law isn't followed," said Reid-Niemiec. "It's the parents that can lean on their school boards when they're up for election, to ask 'what are you going to do to keep our children safe?'"
"I would like to see another legislator pick up this proposal and do something with it," said Garrett. "If it passes the Senate with everybody voting yes, we should be able to get this done."