A Swansea police officer brought a toy castle with her when she talked to 4-year-olds about what they should do if someone with a weapon tried to come into their school.
She compared the castle’s plastic bricks to the real ones they could see in the walls. “A castle is like your school,” she told them. “You’re safe.”
It was part of the training she gives in schools to prepare students, teachers and staff for emergencies they could face.
Officer Cheryl Venorsky said she has seen that including children in the training helps empower them. “They feel that they have a say in what happens to them,” she said.
She lets them set the tone for the conversation by asking, “Tell Officer Cheryl, what can some bad guys bring to school?”
“And I’ll have kids telling me guns, bombs, swords, knives,” Venorsky said. “So you’re talking about (a student in) pre-K, kindergarten, first grade that knows these things already. … Now, if they were talking about zombies and dolls and things like that, then it would be a different type of discussion.
“But these kids already knew. These kids know what’s going on.”
Area educators and police investigated at least 24 threats to students and schools in the 2017-18 academic year. Five of those investigations resulted in criminal charges.
Meanwhile, students who survived a school shooting in Parkland, Florida, started a national movement of protests against gun violence, which reached the metro-east.
Fourteen students, a teacher and two staff members were killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The suspect faces murder and attempted-murder charges.
Local students said during their demonstrations back in March that they had been thinking more about their safety.
A student from Madison Senior High School talked to friends about the best ways to get out of his school if there were a shooting: the windows. An O’Fallon Township High School student knew the phone calls she would make: one to her parents and one to her brother.
The conversation about safety at school is continuing in the metro-east and nationally, even after most students left their classrooms for summer break.
What are schools doing?
About one out of every three school districts in St. Clair and Madison counties has a school resource officer.
Cheryl Venorsky is one of the metro-east’s school resource officers. She splits her time between the two elementary school districts in Swansea: High Mount 116 and Wolf Branch 113.
The other districts that have one or more police officers in their schools include:
▪ Alton 11
▪ Belleville 201
▪ Brooklyn 188
▪ Cahokia 187
▪ Collinsville 10
▪ Edwardsville 7
▪ Granite City 9
▪ Grant 110
▪ Highland 5
▪ Mascoutah 19
▪ O’Fallon 203
▪ Pontiac 105
▪ Triad 2
A school resource officer’s job can be to protect the school, to help it prepare for a crisis, to look for ways to make it safer and to educate, mentor and counsel students or their parents.
There are 18 districts in St. Clair County and seven in Madison County that don’t have the position. None of the districts in Clinton, Monroe or Randolph counties have school resource officers.
Some metro-east school leaders expressed interest but said their districts can’t afford it.
Grants offer a temporary funding source. But when they run out, it can cost school districts between about $24,000 and $88,000 each academic year for one officer, according to metro-east agreements. In some cases, the cities are sharing the cost with the schools.
A few district officials are in talks with police departments about adding officers in their schools in the future, including in Dupo and Bethalto.
Several districts that don’t have school resource officers partner with their local police departments, so the grounds can still be patrolled, teachers can still get training and students can still meet the officers from their communities without using district money, according to school leaders.
Highland District 5 recently signed an agreement with the city to bring an officer to the schools. Before that, its employees went through training with the Highland Police Department.
It’s taught by specially-certified officers and designed to show educators how they react in emergency situations. An officer will shoot blank rounds from an AR-15 rifle in the school.
“Our biggest training point that we try to get across to them is that when you hear that sound, when you know something like that’s going on, that you take action, that you have a plan within your own classroom or wherever you’re at in the school, that you know what you’re going to do and how you’re going to act to better protect everyone,” said Highland Police Sgt. Damian Feeny.
The department tries to make the training realistic, asking them to move, barricade doors, run away and fight back. Teachers leave knowing what gunfire sounds and smells like inside a school and how to turn students’ desks into a barricade.
“That’s good, and it will help prepare us because...even with something that you know is coming (in the training), it scares you and could frighten you into shock,” said Chris Frey, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Highland Middle School.
The school resource officer who worked in Parkland was branded a coward for never going inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during the shooting on Feb. 14.
Scot Peterson, the now-retired officer, told the Washington Post that he heard two or three shots but didn’t know whether they were coming from outside or inside the school.
He wasn’t getting updated information from students’ 911 calls with the location and description of the gunman, so he said he looked for a shooter in the windows, the sidewalk and the rooftop, in case there was a sniper like there had been in Las Vegas.
The shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas killed 58 people and wounded more than 700 in October.
“It’s haunting,” Peterson said of the shooting in Parkland. “I’ve cut that day up a thousand ways with a million different what-if scenarios, but the bottom line is I was there to protect, and I lost 17.”
In Highland, the new school resource officer is spending the summer training and learning about the job.
A group of parents asked the district to bring an officer back to the schools after there had been two threats to Highland students this year. The last time Highland had a school resource officer was in 2011.
“The fact is school shootings are happening, and we are asking you to get ahead of it instead of behind it,” Jon Wakeley, a parent, said during a school board meeting in February.
Officer Venorsky said part of her job as a school resource officer is to deter someone from even trying to get inside a school to harm students. Her police cruiser in the parking lot lets everyone know an armed officer is inside.
School districts will also use surveillance cameras to monitor their buildings. O’Fallon District 90 plans to use the summer to add up to 70 new cameras to its seven schools.
District 90 doesn’t have a school resource officer, but a retired police captain works in the schools. The job involves providing emergency training to the staff and updating the district’s procedures for a crisis.
Belleville District 118 doesn’t have a school resource officer either, but a “school safety coordinator” helps it identify the strengths and weaknesses of its plans for emergencies. The coordinator also assists with school drills and investigations.
Often, visitors have to wait outside a locked door for the staff inside to open it through a buzzer and camera system before they can get into a school in the metro-east.
Of the schools that don’t have a school resource officer, at least 10 have metal detectors. Another has an alarm system that can lock the building down and inform law enforcement when there’s trouble.
Schools also use technology such as online forms or hotlines for students and parents to report issues that might affect their safety at school, so the district can investigate. They take tips about bullying, threats, weapons, drugs or mental health issues like suicide.
The community can report concerns to Belleville District 201 by emailing email@example.com or calling 618-222-8222.
Edwardsville District 7 and Collinsville Unit 10 both use P3 Campus. People can download an app on their phones or go online to make a report through P3 Campus’ website.
A local business recently donated money so Collinsville could start using it. According to O’Fallon Police Capt. Kirk Brueggeman, a business owner offered to pay for P3 Campus in O’Fallon, too; Brueggeman said the technology is expected to be available for O’Fallon Township High School in August.
Collinsville also has a school-run hotline that people can call or text at 618-979-6406.
Another option for reporting concerns is to call local law enforcement.
A parent in Belleville recently called police to report her son left home after making suicidal comments, and her handgun was missing. Other people told police he had allegedly threatened to confront his girlfriend, a student at Belleville East High School.
It was supposed to be the last day of school, with students taking their final exams. But because police said there could be a threat to a student, Belleville District 201 canceled classes and closed the campuses at both of the high schools in Belleville.
“It’s one of the worst phone calls you can get as a school superintendent,” said Jeff Dosier, superintendent of District 201. “The only thing that would be worse is if a tragedy has already happened.”
The teen faces charges related to making a threat and using a weapon.
When Venorsky steps inside a school, she said her job changes. She’s still a police officer, wearing her uniform and carrying a gun, but she’s also a teacher and informal counselor.
Her day involves listening to kids and giving them advice about fights with other students, trouble in class, problems at home and anything else that might be stressing them out.
James Barfield, 14, said there were times this past school year when he just needed a break. He would walk to the office that Venorsky shares with High Mount School’s social worker, Yvette Hicks.
“I come up here when I’m stressed,” James said. “It just feels good up here because I can talk to people. People down there (in his classrooms), I can’t talk to them because they’ll just laugh about it. So I come up here a lot.”
Their office has books and games, as well as snacks, deodorant and clothes for the kids who need them. Venorsky said students stop by to talk or just sit and calm down before going back to class.
“There’s some times that they may come here in the morning, and if they’re disrupting the classroom downstairs, there’s probably a reason for that,” Venorsky said. “... They may have had something going on at home, and they brought it to school. And our job is to try to find out what that is and help with that problem and fix what’s going on.
“Even if that’s our small amount of time we’re doing that here, we’re helping them out, and we’re making it easier for the teachers to teach and for these kids to understand there’s somebody there.”
Another student, 12-year-old Daniel Nelloms, said Venorsky always makes time for him.
“I like Officer Cheryl because I can come to her with a lot of things,” he said. “If I’ve got problems going on downstairs or something with other people, she’ll help me cool down, and she’ll tell me good advice or what I should do so I don’t get in trouble.”
Venorsky hopes that guidance stays with them long after they leave High Mount, so they don’t make choices as adults that could get them in trouble.
“If we get to them early and help them out, then we won’t have those problems you see on the streets,” she said. “We’ve done more of a service by getting to them now and helping them than waiting and trying to handle a problem that’s out of control because we didn’t try to fix it or help it in the first place, when it first started showing up.
“You can’t put people in jail all the time, every single day, and expect that that’s going to be the answer to all the problems.”
What are state, federal officials doing?
Venorsky said a school resource officer’s job isn’t to arrest students and put them through the juvenile justice system.
“It’s where we want to make sure you’re guided, and you know what’s right and wrong,” she said. “You know that there are choices you can make out there that are the right choices and that you don’t have to follow the crowd. You make your own decisions.”
Illinois lawmakers want to create a grant program for schools to help them come up with alternatives to discipline like a suspension or expulsion, which takes students out of class. Educators would be able to use the money to hire school psychologists and social workers or to train school staff on how to support students dealing with stress and conflicts, for example.
Lawmakers are also calling for special training for all school resource officers in the state. Of the agreements that metro-east districts have for school resource officers, about half specifically mention training for the officer.
The two state proposals have passed both the House and Senate.
Interest in school resource officers has been growing. But research so far doesn’t address whether police in schools deter shootings, according to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service, which aids Congress with policy and legal analysis.
The report came after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first-grade students and six employees were killed.
The Congressional Research Service found that schools with police officers were more likely to work with law enforcement to assess building security and create a plan for emergencies, including how to handle shootings.
The report states that those actions might contribute to safer schools. But to evaluate the effectiveness of a school resource officer, it says researchers would need to collect data when officers worked in schools and when they didn’t over a long period of time — which hadn’t happened when the report was published.
“There are logical reasons to believe that (school resource officers) might help prevent school shootings; to wit, that someone might not attack a school if he or she knows that there is an officer on-site, or (officers) developing a relationship with the student body might facilitate reporting of threats made by other students,” the report states. “In addition, placing an officer in a school might facilitate a quicker response time by law enforcement if a school shooting occurs.
“However, none of the research on the effectiveness of (school resource officer) programs addresses this issue.”
In 2016, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice came up with guidelines for school districts to follow as they started partnering with local police, as well as guidelines to make existing partnerships better.
The 2016 suggestions were to come up with a formal agreement for a school resource officer with input from students, parents and the community that requires the following:
▪ Constitutional and civil rights requirements for dealing with students when it comes to searches, uses of force, interrogations and arrests.
▪ Ongoing training and performance evaluations for the officer.
U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, who represents southwestern Illinois, was recently in Alton talking to people who work in schools and in law enforcement about their ideas for protecting students. He said on social media that he planned to take their feedback to Congress for possible legislative changes.
His metro-east visit was on the same day that a 13-year-old student reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a question about school shootings.
“One thing that affects my and other students’ mental health is the worry about the fact that we or our friends could get shot at school,” said Benje Choucroun, of California. “Specifically, can you tell me what the administration has done and will do to prevent these senseless tragedies?”
Sanders choked up when she responded: “I think that as a kid and certainly as a parent there is nothing that could be more terrifying for a kid to go to school and not feel safe. So I’m sorry that you feel that way.”
The federal school safety commission — which President Donald Trump set up after the Parkland shooting — would be meeting to talk about it, she added.
Since Parkland, there have been more incidents at schools in the national spotlight.
In Dixon, Illinois, a school resource officer shot and arrested a gunman at the high school before students were injured. Students were gathered in the gym that day, practicing for their graduation ceremony.
Gov. Bruce Rauner created Officer Mark Dallas Day in Illinois — it’s May 30 — to recognize the Dixon officer for stopping a potential school shooting.
In Santa Fe, Texas, a gunman killed eight students and two teachers in a high school classroom. Ten others were wounded, including one of the officers who confronted the gunman.
In Noblesville, Indiana, a student and a teacher were wounded by gunshots. The teacher was shot as he tackled the gunman in a middle school classroom.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the federal commission’s leader, said they won’t be looking at the role of guns in school violence.
“That is not part of the commission’s charge per se,” DeVos told a Senate subcommittee overseeing education spending. “We are actually studying school safety and how we can ensure our students are safe at school.”
DeVos has visited a Maryland school for ideas. The approach to safety there is, in part, teaching students good behavior.
Schools in Belleville have been recognized with national awards for their efforts to change their buildings’ atmosphere by teaching lessons on character — including Ellis Elementary School in 2018.
“You basically had been having a bad day at home when you’re getting ready or something, and then when you walk into the school, it’s like a poof, like a welcoming and happy kind of shine,” said Kaleb Dowd, a third-grade student there.
The cost of protection
Federal grants between $200,000 and $1 million are available for schools to increase their security.
Here are the ways the money could be used:
▪ Training school staff and students to prevent violence; training school officials to intervene and respond to people who have mental health issues that could affect school safety.
▪ Developing and operating anonymous reporting systems for threats of school violence, including phone apps, hotlines and websites.
▪ Developing and operating “school threat assessment” and “crisis intervention” teams that may include coordinating with law enforcement agencies and school staff.
School districts can apply through grants.gov. The deadline is July 23.
BND reporters Kaley Johnson and Robyn L. Kirsch and the Associated Press contributed to this report.