In light of recent threats and acts of violence at schools locally and across the nation, O'Fallon school, civic and law enforcement leaders gathered last week for a roundtable discussion about how they could better prepare themselves to handle such dangers.
"If you look around the room at our command staff, almost every one of us has served as a DARE officer or a school resource officer or some type of juvenile office. So, it is extremely important to this organization," O'Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook told to the 21 attendees at Wednesday, March 7 meeting.
O'Fallon Mayor Herb Roach said he had called for the gathering a week prior to the March 5 threat made at J Emmett Hinchcliffe Sr. Elementary School, located at 1050 Ogle Road in O'Fallon.
"I called our leaders, police and school folks to come together, so we could all be on the same page after what happened in Parkland, Florida," Roach said. "If our kids should be safe anywhere, it should most definitely be in their school while they are learning. We need to keep it that way."
Van Hook said the idea was to see "if there's anything we can maybe improve upon — or something new we could implement — to make sure that we are doing everything in our power from a law enforcement and school administrative standpoint to make sure our kids are safe at school."
The meeting was not open to the public, but an O'Fallon Progress reporter was permitted to sit in for the majority of the discussion, when police and school building operations information wasn't being disclosed.
Among the attendees for the "two-way dialogue," as Van Hook referred to it, were administrators from public and private schools in O'Fallon, including St. Clare's Catholic School, First Baptist Academy, O'Fallon School District 90, O'Fallon Township High School 203, and Central School District 104.
"Part of the reasons they wanted us to talk about all the things we're doing is, some districts, or even the private schools, are not utilizing some of our skills, talents and training that we have available," Van Hook said.
A lot of the conversation centered around having more conversations.
"Communication is key," O'Fallon 90 Superintendent Carrie Hruby said as she shared her takeaways from the Hinchcliffe threat and subsequent investigation that led to the arrest of a 15-year-old boy.
The former OTHS student was charged with four felonies. The threat included writing on the exterior of the elementary school wall stating: "I'm going to shoot this (expletive) up."
"How do you balance the line of communication of educating and sharing with parents so they can be informed, but at the same time, not creating mass panic and unnecessary fear?" Van Hook asked.
"It’s a fine line," Hruby said. "We want to share with families to let them know all that we are doing to implement increased security measures, while not disclosing too much so as to add exposure to any vulnerability."
Whatever the message, OTHS District 203 Superintendent Darcy Benway said it is imperative for all the O'Fallon school districts and the police to stay in communication with each other ensure everyone is on the same page.
Van Hook agreed.
"It kind of goes back with the incident at Hinchcliffe. It's so important that we are all in constant communication and having meetings like this before the events take place. Because once it happens, it's too late. You can't unring the bell," Van Hook said, while acknowledging that is a hard ask in today's world of instant updates.
But it's important, he said.
"The worst thing that could happen in an event like (Hinchcliffe) is the O'Fallon Police tweet one thing, or we put something out on Facebook, and the city or school puts something different," Van Hook said.
In addition to the communication dialogue, Van Hook encouraged all the schools to take advantage of the active-shooter training the O'Fallon Police have offered.
"There's no play by play rule book for these situations, so there's a delicate balance," Van Hook said.
O'Fallon Police Capt. Kirk Brueggeman also informed attendees that a private business owner had reached out to the department and offered to fund the implementation of a P3 program, which allows students to anonymously report of safety or mental health concerns. The application can be download onto personal phones or tablets.
"We are going to be pushing this out through the high school only, starting next (school) year in August," Brueggeman said.
The program costs about $2,500, annually. Collinsville and Edwardsville high schools are already utilizing the application successfully, Brueggeman said.