PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — For Peoria County Regional Superintendent Beth Crider, school safety has been her number one concern since the 2013 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people including 20 children were killed.
“From that moment, we came together and decided that safety would be an important focus, and we put some deliberate things in place,” Crider said. “We take safety very seriously. We are constantly talking about it, we always have it in the forefront of our minds because we feel it’s our single most important thing we do, and that is to keep kids safe.”
Every August before a new school year begins, Crider hosts a school safety seminar with school administrators, first responders, law enforcement and community organizations.
“That group recommends best practices, what school safety should look like, what schools should have in place, the different things that they should do to respond to a crisis,” she said.
Illini Bluffs Superintendent Roger Alvey is part of the group, and also serves on the Illinois Terrorism Task Force. The task force’s School Safety Working Group makes recommendations to the governor for statewide school safety practices.
“Many districts were doing their own thing, either through their website or more informally, and there wasn’t a uniform consistent practice across the state,” said Alvey.
With Illini Bluffs serving as a pilot location for the past year, the taskforce developed the “Safe-2-Help IL” helpline. Anyone can anonymously report school safety issues and find resources for help with bullying, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and other stressors.
“We are only as safe as our willing for people to come forward and share information,” said Crider. “Using that ‘Safe-2-Tip IL’ helpline could literally save someone’s life, so if you see something, say something.”
Alvey said the most important component to school safety is keeping open lines of communication, so red flags aren’t missed, adding school safety should be “embedded in the culture.”
“This has to be something that you are constantly reminding your staff and students about,” he said. “It’s all about encouraging school personnel, no matter how minuscule they feel it might be to again, see something, say something, do something to actually get them to report things.”
Alvey recommended teachers to watch out for “dark things” within their students’ assignments.
“It might be an art assignment… It could be an essay… something that’s alarming to a teacher. The critical thing obviously is for those concerns to be relayed to appropriate parties within the schools so that we can react. We have a behavior threat assessment team for a reason, and it’s to identify those students of concern and provide appropriate interventions as necessary,” he said.
He said schools also need to be concerned with the mental health of students. The impact of COVID-19 isolation and remote learning has affected socialization skills. He added, building positive relationships with students is key.