In the wake of mass school shootings across the nation, more schools are considering adding armed officers, even armed teachers.
Tragedies like the Valentine’s Day deadly shooting that rocked the Parkland, Florida community have sparked national debates on gun control and school safety. And in Illinois, they frame the conversation for new legislation.
“This can happen anywhere,” said Democratic State Senator Kimberly A. Lightford.
Lightford said she favors having police officers permanently stationed in schools, commonly referred to as school resource officers or SRO’s, in every building. She has introduced a new bill in the General Assembly that would mandate SRO’s to undergo training to interact with the student population.
“We require officers who work with dogs to receive canine training. We require officers who work with horses to receive equestrian training. Yet officers who work with children (in Illinois) receive no specialized training in how to interact with the student population,” said Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, an attorney for the non-profit Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, who drafted Sen. Lightford’s bill.
Mbekeani-Wiley does not agree that officers should be permanently assigned to schools but said if they must, training in certain areas, such as crisis intervention for youth, de-escalation, implicit bias, adolescent brain development, cyberbullying, is imperative.
“Police should only be contacted if there is a serious and immediate threat to the safety of our school personnel, the public or our students,” said Mbekeani-Wiley. “We find that we are funneling children, particularly children of color, into the criminal justice system.”
Mbekeani-Wiley studied the effectiveness of school policing in Chicago Public Schools in a February 2017 report titled, “Handcuffs in the Hallways.” In it, she found Chicago SRO’s operate with little oversight and two-thirds have had at least one complaint filed against them.
According to a CPS spokesperson, the district has 150 SRO’s in 75 of its schools.
In Illinois, school districts contract with their local police or sheriff’s department for SRO staffing. NBC 5 Investigates found neither the Illinois State Board of Education nor the Illinois School Resource Officer Association keeps track of how many schools have SRO’s, which makes it difficult to know how many school resource officers there are and how they are trained.
Sen. Lightford said she hopes this legislation will require not only a new training standard for SRO’s but also guidelines for collecting data about SRO’s statewide.
“In Illinois, we do see a gap in officers who have come through the national training compared to those who have not,” said Mo Canady, Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Canady estimates less than half of the nation’s school resource officers have been trained by the national organization. NASRO holds annual training conferences and also offers mobile training by working closely with North East Multi-Regional Training, which serves law enforcement in the Chicago area.
“The number one goal of an SRO is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth,” Canady said. “Coming from being on the street or being an investigator into the school environment is a very radical change.”
The Illinois Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Associations would agree, but both groups said they believe state SRO’s are already getting much of the training that would be required under Sen. Lightford’s bill.
“We are all for training our officers so they work at their highest potential,” said Oak Brook Police Chief James Kruger, who is also President of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “But the cost of training, retraining, (we want to) make sure we don’t duplicate our efforts.”
The NASRO training is $500 per officer.
Mbekeani-Wiley, who as a civilian participated in the NASRO training as part of her research, said it is an investment into students.
“They deserve to have an officer that’s adequately trained to engage with them in a positive manner,” said Mbekeani-Wiley.
In addition to Sen. Lightford’s bill on mandatory training, another bill, sponsored by state Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, also addresses SRO’s. It calls for federal grants currently used for school law enforcement to be re-allocated to fund more social workers and behavioral health specialists. The bill states police in schools criminalize students and contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The Illinois Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police Associations oppose HB 4208.