In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, state Sen. Tim Bivins, R-Dixon, is proposing a “common sense” package of legislation to improve security at public schools statewide.
Senate Bill 1931 creates the School Security and Standards Task Force, an unpaid group composed of members of the state Senate, House of Representatives and Board of Education; various law enforcement officials; school principals, superintendents and board members; a security consultant and an architect or engineer.
The task force would gather safety and security data from public schools statewide and present it to the State Board of Education by Jan. 1, 2014. The task force will be abolished the following day.
Bivins said the bill will not create any mandates, only recommendations, so schools will have more information on how they can take steps to improve safety and security.
Consultation is required
Once school board members have this information, they can begin planning for security upgrades. Senate Bill 1932 requires public school boards to consult with local law enforcement and security experts in the planning stages of remodeling or constructing buildings.
Bivins said this is the only mandate in his package of proposed legislation, but he is not concerned with backlash.
“You’re always going to have opposition to anything you want to do,” he said. But he said the safety of children in Illinois public schools is his priority, and he believes his proposed legislation will improve that safety.
Harmon Mitchell, former school board president in the Rockford Public School District, said he supports this legislation, but he and others in the district are already taking steps to improve safety without any state mandates.
Mitchell said that, after Sandy Hook, board members spent time looking over locks, cameras and other security equipment to be more aware of the safety situation in the schools.
“Everybody kind of got scared for their kids -- and they should be. We’re convinced that we have very safe and secure schools in the Rockford School District ... We have some things to do, but in general we’re very safe and secure.”
-- Harmon Mitchell
Once the school has planned for security upgrades, they will have to pay for them somehow. Senate Bill 1933 creates the School Security and Enhancement Matching Grant Program, which will help schools pay for physical security renovations or upgrades. The grant will cover 75 percent of costs, and the school board is responsible for coming up with the remaining 25 percent.
Mitchell said he feels Bivins’s heart is in the right place with this legislation, but he is concerned about where the state funding will come from.
Bivins said the grant program will have $4.2 million per year allocated from the Capital Projects Fund, which was created in 2009 to fund infrastructure projects like road and building maintenance. He said the money is already available through tax revenue, and the only difference will be in how it is allocated.
Bivins said schools are an important part of infrastructure. He said many public schools were built decades ago and not necessarily with security in mind. The grant program is designed to help schools upgrade their security.
Emphasis on community involvement
Bivins also places emphasis on community involvement in school safety. The final piece of legislation in his package is Senate Resolution 91, which asks schools to create a School Watch Program modeled after Neighborhood Watch.
All proposed legislation has been assigned to Senate committees for discussion.
Bivins also is sponsoring a bill proposed by State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka to remove polling places from public and private schools for security reasons. He said the bill is entirely preventative and that he is not aware of any cases of students being harmed by voters who could have criminal records.
Some schools have already removed polling places on their own, but Bivins said there are other alternatives for those who are hesitant to do so, like closing schools for election day or moving election day to the weekend.
Janice Crutchfield, school board president in the Freeport Public School District, said schools in her district already do not serve as polling places, and she supports the bill.
“I think it’s a good idea. These days you just don’t know what people are thinking ... Most cities have other buildings where people can go. If it’s a way to keep our children safe, then I’m okay with it.”
-- Janice Crutchfield
Dave Dockstader, school board president at Yorkville Community Unit School District 115, said Grande Reserve Elementary School, 3142 Grande Trail, Yorkville, is the only school in the district that hosts polling places, and he doesn’t have a problem with it.
“The way we’re able to lock off our buildings, I don’t see it being a problem in our area,” he said. The school was designed so the gym, which is the area used for voting, can be locked off from the rest of the school. He said older schools in the district that weren’t designed with such security measures may pose a problem for hosting polling places, but Grande Reserve does not.
Allison Strupeck, director of communication services at Community Unit School District 300, said safety is a priority when polling places are hosted at Neubert Elementary School, 1100 Huntington Drive, Algonquin; Algonquin Middle School, 520 Longwood Drive, Algonquin; and Jacobs High School, 2601 Bunker Hill Drive, Algonquin.
“We strive to ensure that the actual room where the voting will take place is segregated from the rest of the school, with very limited entry and exit points,” Strupeck said. “Also, our administrators and other staff keep a very close eye on the voting activity throughout the day.”
Strupeck said she has heard from concerned parents from time to time about the issue, but ultimately she feels confident in the security of the schools and sees voting as an integral part of the schools’ function in the community.
“It is a traditional part of our culture, at least in northern Illinois, for public schools to serve as polling places,” she said. “There is some value to the community engagement offered by this tradition.”
Police in place for election
Strupeck said there will be police officers stationed in schools during the April election. Both Strupeck and Dockstader said the districts do not receive any money for hosting polling places.
Bivins said his security package and Topinka’s bill are common sense.
“If our children are our most precious resource, if our children are our future like we say they are, why wouldn’t we go the extra mile to protect them while they’re in school?” Bivins said.